Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I never saw the movie that came out in the 90s (or was it 2000s) and it seems like that’s a good thing. From everything I’ve heard from others it has about as much to do with this book as World War Z has to do with its namsake. I added it to my To-Read list ages ago because I read somewhere – Wikipedia or TV Tropes that The Forever War was at least partially a response to Starship Troopers by someone who viewed war differently because of the Vietnam war. Both are often cited as seminal to the genre of military space science fiction. So as I continue to read the classics of both literary and genre fiction, I figured I’d check this one out. Boy am I glad I did.
What’s most interesting about Starship Troopers is that in its near lack of technology it’s both timeless and dated. Scalzi has mentioned that Old Man’s War is already dated as the characters refer to their data tablets as PDAs, a relic of when it was written. The only real tech in ST is the combat suit and there’s really not much about it that seems dated. Some of the terminology would be different – the goggles would be referred to as Augmented Reality, but really barely anything needs to be changed there. Interestingly, the only other thing that really stood out to me was, again, both something that makes it seem dated and forward thinking: gender.
Heinlein, writing in the late 1950s, does imbue his characters a bit of a sexism and boys-will-be-boys attitude towards girls. At least in the way the main character talks about women and the fact that men guard the women’s quarters. But then he’s so progressive in having an integrated navy – women are considered the best space pilots and have found their niche there. So while assholes like Newt Gingrich were worrying about women having their periods during war in the 1990s, here’s Heinlein in the 50s imagining them playing a crucial part in the war to save humanity from its space-enemies.
What’s interesting is that going in I thought it was going to be a jigoistic book, since TFW is a Vietnam-era response to it. But Heinlein a verteran writing in a time in which a large proportion of the male population (and some women) were veterans of World Wars One and Two as well as the Korean War. So while there is a lot of talk about esprit de corps and how much military changes a man, he couldn’t stray too far from realism. Everyone reading ST had been to boot camp – they’d lost friends and family in the war. They knew what it was like to be a captain or sergeant. I haven’t served, but I work in a very military place and so I have a feeling it’s pretty accurate.
I think it’s interesting that Heinlein imagines a world in which the franchise (or voting citizenship) only goes to those who have served in the military and not been dishonorably discharged. He posits that those who have been in the military have proven they can put society before themselves. I must say that it does seem like a pretty sweet way to go given the way things have been going the last few decades with all of us reaping the benefits on the backs of a small portion of the population.
Finally, I wanted to mention that this book sets the template for the books that come later. It is more about the main character and how he adapts to military life than anything else. There are only really two battles depicted in the book. The rest is about his training and how he grows as a person. I recognize that immediately in both Ender’s Game and Old Man’s War. Shoot, Ender’s Game even borrows the bad guy: bugs.
If you saw the movie, put that out of your mind. If you want to see the origins of all the Military Space SF – it’s an enjoyable romp and you’ll only be reminded it’s old when the characters use books instead of ebooks. (and of course the language a little different – but not Shakespearean or something)