It’s surprising that I never got around to reading this book earlier. Starship Troopers is one of the big controversial books about the subject of war. A lot of context for this book comes from Heinlein’s experiences during the Korean War. Heinlein puts a lot of ideas and philosophies in the book which you may not agree with. Still, the book can be enjoyed without subscribing to the author’s beliefs.
I read it because it was the subject of our podcast discussion. If you’re interested in listening to that podcast, it’s here – Starship Troopers podcast on Gadgets360
There would never be any doubt that this is a military sci-fi story. Our hero, Johnnie Rico, is the ideal soldier that any nation would be proud to have. At the academy their instructor is grumpy, mean soldier who is very easy to hate. In reality though, their instructor is a legend in the military and loves his soldiers. It’s easy to recognize these tropes but you have to remember that this book was written in the late 1950’s. It’s likely that Heinlein invented this trope! Rico is the usual tough guy soldier. While in training when he has some disagreements with another trainee, they go and fight it out in the bathroom to resolve it.
War and military service is glorified in this book. Being a soldier and fighting for your planet is one of the highest honors. The enemies of humanity are easy to hate and even easier to kill for our protagonist and his fellow soldiers. It should come as no surprise that this book is recommended by the United States Airforce. The book offers the best of what it is like to be in the armed forces and so much of it is still valid today.
Humanity is at constant war with an insectoid species that is far more advanced than humans are. Johnnie is part of the Mobile Infantry, which is the frontline of the war. He didn’t choose to be in MI but he clearly isn’t smart enough for anything else. Regardless of his situation, he takes MI seriously and becomes a dedicated soldier. One that never asks questions but acts upon his orders diligently.
Our hero makes a lot of friends and tends to lose them fairly quickly but does not seem affected by it at all. He’s more than happy to welcome his new set of friends and soldiers and then watch them die one by one. Rinse and repeat. Everything slides off Rico because he is a good soldier. He has no serious relationships, no attachments and gives up on his family fairly easily. He’s not a mindless automaton, that much is obvious, but I still wonder if Heinlein is trying to portray something here on purpose.
Heinlein has either willingly or unwillingly chosen to avoid discussing the downsides of war and the emotional and mental toll it takes on soldiers. While PTSD may not have been recognised as a side-effect of combat when the book was written, it is clear that war has adverse effects on those who participate in it and are witness to the horrors of it.
A lot of Heinlein’s ideas seem a bit difficult to digest. The analogy between housebreaking a puppy and raising a child seem a bit too archaic. The existence of an elite class (the citizens) and the fact that only citizens can vote is interesting. Our society could do with a good balance of authority and responsibility as the book so clearly believes in. Women seem to play a big role in the navy and are known as the best pilots. But the interaction of our soldiers with women seems fairly odd. They tend to talk about women as if they’ve never met one. Probably another sign by Heinlein trying to distance soldiers from their feelings so they can focus on one thing, war.
I can give you a dozen reasons as to why the book is controversial but my overall take was that the book is enjoyable and puts forth some ideas and questions that make you wonder. I’m not sure whether I would refer to the society in the book as fascist; there’s a lot of personal freedom, no racism, some sexism and peace. Heinlein was way ahead of the curve when he wrote this book nearly 60 years ago. The fact that the book remains completely readable even today is a testament to his vision of society.
The book is definitely worth your time and a must read.