This is the first book on the list that could legitimately be classified as “Military Science Fiction,” in that it examines the nature of war, conflict and military service in the future (usually either in space or on another planet). And while I’m generally not very interested in anything having to do with the military, I still found this novel to be unexpectedly absorbing. Along with The Forever War (#21 on this list), Starship Troopers paints a gruesome, yet believable, picture of the emotional and physical challenges of taking part in an interstellar war with an alien species. And while the book’s overarching themes may lean more towards glorification of the military and personal sacrifice than I may have liked, I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the book’s fascinating political and moral arguments and the sympathy I had for a soldier who was stuck in the middle.
While some readers may be more familiar with the 1997 film of the same name, the book has a much different tone. Where the movie is an almost satirically over-the-top look at how war can create a culture of senseless violence and aggression (and the propaganda that supports it), the book can actually be taken (and was by some critics) as a philosophical treatise on how military service and unquestioning allegiance to the state is actually a virtue and the responsibility of any good “Citizen.” While action and combat take center stage in the movie, the book spends a lot of its time in the classroom where the students and potential recruits are given lectures on history and moral philosophy – including the realization that “violence has settled more issues in history than any other factor.” Although Heinlein does offer a brief counterpoint to these ideas, they really aren’t very fleshed out and don’t seem to hold much weight with any of the main characters.
Starship Troopers Summary:The story is told from the point of view of Juan “Johnny” Rico, a member of the mobile infantry, as he rises through the ranks of the Federation military while fighting an ongoing war with an alien race of arachnids, also known as “Bugs” (I’m not sure what it is with science fiction’s fascination with killer bugs). Told in flashbacks, the novel follows Rico through his initial training and combat missions all the way up through his eventual promotion to officer. Besides flashing back to various combat operations and points during his military career, the book also shows some of Rico’s high school experiences (including the classroom discussions discussed above). Through this we learn that Earth is currently ruled by the Terran Federation, a result of the collapse of the unlimited democracies of the 20th century. While certain human rights remain intact, the ability to vote or hold office is reserved for “Citizens” – that is, people who volunteer for a minimum level of military service. While this is one of the original motivations for Rico joining the military in the first place, he eventually decides to become a career soldier.
Starship Troopers Review: I’m not going to dance around the fact that a lot of the novel’s ideas about personal responsibility and sacrifice for the great good rub me the wrong way. And while I admit that violence may have solved the majority of the world’s disputes in the past, I don’t think it makes the use of military might or aggression “Noble” in any way shape or form. I do, however, understand that Heinlein wrote this book at a much different time in history and had a much different relationship to the military (he served in the Navy for five years, although never saw active combat). His views reflect a time in which self-sacrifice for the greater good against a common enemy was much more clear cut than it is today. But regardless of how I feel about Heinlein or his politics, I can’t deny that this book paints a startlingly vivid picture of a world at war with a menacing alien threat and the ways in which men are motivated to join the cause against it.
Starship Troopers Quotes: “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.” – Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois
“I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important — it’s just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.” – Juan Rico
Written by Andrew Kaufman
September 22, 2010