Wednesday, 10 April 2002

Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers (1959)

Edition: New English Library, 1970 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1081

A perennial debate among SF fans as long as I have known any is about the nature of Heinlein's politics and the extent to which his ideas are feasible. The two books which provide the main fuel for the debate are Stranger in a Strange Land and this one, which can be seen as portraying opposite poles of his ideas. Many of the arguments are based on a fairly superficial reading of the novels, and on the mistaken assumption that the views attributed by a writer to his characters and used to form their society must be his own (George Orwell being one of the more obvious counter-examples in speculative fiction). I have to say that the hippie culture themes in Stranger are closer to my own politics than the militarism of Starship Troopers, but it is at least a tribute to the immediacy of Heinlein's writing that these debates continue more than a decade after his death and more than thirty years since these two novels were published.

The background to Starship Troopers is of more interest than its plot, which merely follows Johnny Rico from high school into the MI (Mobile Infantry), dropped in armoured suits to assault positions on distant planets in a war with insect-like aliens. Heinlein spends quite a high proportion of the novel explaining the philosophy behind his future world, a regenerated civilization following the "Disorders" at the end of the twentieth century. This is partly because whatever background Heinlein uses, his novels almost always star contemporary (if not already old fashioned when he wrote them) Americans promoting a version of the American Dream, in this case glorifying the the boot camp system as experienced by the writer himself in the Second World War. So the characters could be drawn from any of his novels; it is the way that he sets up the background which is interesting.

The fundamental foundation of the society depicted in Starship Troopers is the idea that the only people who should be allowed to run things are the veterans, for they have demonstrated by volunteering that they are sufficiently committed to the survival of their society that they are willing to fight and die in its defence. While limits to the franchise seem likely to lead to a more committed electorate (compare the violent demonstrations accompanying nineteenth century British elections with today's voter apathy), they do tend towards preservation of a status quo which benefits an elite, and this can easily lead to corruption, unfairness and alienation of those who have no part in government. (Again, Britain provides examples in the nineteenth century Radical movement.) In Heinlein's world, there are compulsory high school classes in political philosophy, designed to uphold the regime (if more subtly than, say, the indoctrination of children in Communist Russia). It has also been the case that in the past most militarist states have tended to become increasingly aggressive, even when they are democratic in origin (Hitler won elections, for example). The causes and justification for the war which is being fought almost throughout Starship Troopers are not gone into in any detail by Heinlein. Perhaps they are irrelevant; but I would certainly not want to fight in a manifestly unjust war. In the end, the society depicted by Heinlein amounts to quite a good argument against its own philosophical foundations. The little that we see outside the military is basically fifties America with less personal freedom.

From the standpoint of the twenty-first century, it is easy to criticise Heinlein. It might be expected that race would play a part in a novel such as this, but there isn't even a mention of it. Rico's name perhaps hints at a Latin American background, so it may be that Heinlein is being a bit subtle here. On the other hand, Starship Troopers contains several examples of the patriarchal sexism which is common in his writing, something which is of course a reflection the age in which he grew up.

Notwithstanding the interest of the background, it is clear that Heinlein did not intend Starship Troopers to be a serious defense of a philosophical idea in the way that (say) Atlas Shrugged purports to be; it is there to give a war story more interest. (Both this and the science fiction paraphernalia are really irrelevant to the story, and are just added on to a tale which could easily be a Second World War novel.) Even so, I'm pretty sure that Heinlein didn't intend what he wrote here to be taken as seriously as it has been; it is a story for entertainment not persuasion.

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