Putnam, 1974 reprint of 1959 original, 208 pages, ISBN 0425026051
The second stop on my Heinlein Hugo-Winning Novels tour is a big one: 1959’s Starship Troopers still stands as one of the classics of the genre, a perennial best-seller, and a deeply influential piece of work. It has spawned a (grotesquely mutated) series of movies, has recognizably shaped what’s known today as military science-fiction and remains a flashpoint for any discussion in the SF community. Having read it nearly twenty years ago, I remembered fondly as a crackling good story about a young man’s military training and subsequent (early) career. It was my pick for the best SF novel of 1959 in drafting my list of Alternate Hugos.
Having it read once more, I don’t have to temper my assessment much. It’s still a heck of a good read. The training section is just as interesting as I remembered it. With a two more decade’s reading experience in SF, I can now see even more clearly to which extent it has shaped military SF, and why so many books claim it as influence.
But it’s what I didn’t remember, or how I have evolved in the past two decades that make this re-read so interesting.
First up are the numerous passages in which the story takes a break and Heinlein addresses his reader through a series of classroom conversations and outright lecturing about the nobility of military service. For a novel in which I remembered mostly the armored suits and boot-camp sequences, it’s amazing how much of Starship Troopers is a frank philosophical treaty discussing what makes a citizen, and the burdens of being a member of the military. Amazingly enough, those passages remain fascinating despite my now-vehement opposition to the ideas presented here as self-obvious fact. I may now believe that effective governance and accountability is a far more effective democratic tool than disciplined and engaged voters, but Heinlein’s gift for vivid argumentation is what makes the novel so interesting to read. There’s far more philosophy than powered armour in this novel, and that’s a good thing.
This leads directly my second mini-revelation about the novel. For years, I watched online debates about Starship Troopers and accepted that the universe of the novel wasn’t necessarily as fascistic as its opponents made it out to be: after all, wasn’t there a mention about federal service also including non-combatant, possibly even civilian roles? After re-reading the novel, I remain a fan but let’s not kid ourselves: there’s enough textual evidence to highlight that Heinlein clearly meant to suggest that military service was the one true path to enlightened citizenship, and that everything else was secondary. The focus of the novel is such that it doesn’t really allow a look in civilian federal service, but there are countless allusions to the military-first mindset. (Notably the shame through which people quit boot-camp, forever relinquishing their vote.) Let’s just accept it: Yes, Heinlein, an Annapolis military academy graduate, meant military service. If you disagree, write your own novel.
Plenty of people did, with good reason: It’s impossible to read the novel’s first chapter today, as the heavily-armored characters lay waste to a city in a self-avowed nuisance raid, without having a few deep misgivings about the gleeful portrayed destruction, and flashbacks to any of the wars the United States has been involved in for the past fifty years. Heck, I now consider it mandatory to follow up my reading of Starship Troopers with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Times have changed, but if you’re into ballpark comparisons, consider that Heinlein wrote this novel at a 13-year distance from World War 2, roughly the same temporal gap that separates 2014 readers from 2001’s 9/11. (And we all know how that continues to shape our popular culture.) Even then, though, the novel hasn’t aged as badly as you may think. Heinlein pretty much wrote the book on military SF, and everyone else is still riffing off his basic ideas. (We’ll leave for another time the possibility that interstellar war using infantrymen is a ridiculous concept: if you’re going to cling to the idea of “boots on alien planets”, might as well do it the way Heinlein did.) I’m not sure how long this may last once the progressive automation of first-world military forces migrates from the air to the ground, but for now the novel is still relevant.
For a genre novel that’s celebrating its fifty-fifth anniversary of publication, “still relevant” is not a bad review. At the time it was written, Heinlein was hitting his peak as a writer, and the sheer joy of reading the story is more than enough to spackle over the techno-militarism mindset that permeates it. (Mathematical proofs of political arguments? Yeah, sure, whatever.) It’s written with enough verve that it’s easy to misremember that it’s not a wall-to-wall action spectacular, or that our protagonist isn’t exactly the sharpest mind in the toolbox. It may even earn a bit of respect by being a book that is now impossible to take at face value: You have to argue with it almost as a matter of obligation. Heinlein’s greatest achievement may have been in crafting an irresistible argument as much as a paean to his own military experience… and a decent coming-of-age story as well. I went into this re-reading project asking whether the novels still held up, and Starship Troopers sure does, with obligatory caveats.