Over the hump: Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

I just realised, I’ve read or participated in a zillion threads online about Starship Troopers and practically all of them are arguments over the earned franchise issue with side arguments about Juan Rico’s Filipino ancestry. I’ve seen people quoting “counting the fuzz on caterpillars” from both directions hundreds of times, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and people very seldom talk about what a clever story it is.

It’s a good story with a lot more to it! I first read it when I was twelve, along with pretty much everything else Heinlein had written up to that point. I liked it. It wasn’t, and isn’t, my favourite Heinlein, indeed it’s probably somewhere about fifteenth—he wrote a lot of books—but it’s a good readable story and just so stylistically clever.

There’s a standard way of telling a story where you start off with incidents and information that slowly builds up to the point where the reader has learned enough about the world and the background that they can follow a fast-paced climactic sequence without needing to slow down to explain anything. This is the pacing of Moby Dick, for instance, and it’s a very common way to do SF, where you have to introduce and inclue a whole lot of world and background so as to make sense at all. It’s a technique Heinlein knew intimately and used many times. In Starship Troopers, he does this backwards. And it isn’t only the tech and world that he does this backwards with, he also does it with the emotional arc of the novel—the bit where you’re supposed to start to care about characters before you see them killed. He does that backwards too, he does it “backwards and in high heels,” like Ginger Rogers. The book begins with a battle sequence in which troopers are bouncing around the landscape exploding atomics and destroying everything in sight, and with the sergeant, Jelly, not taking the place of the dead lieutenant even though he’s doing his job. Then it backs up to go through Juan’s recruitment, boot-camp, and early war-experiences and acquaintance with these people, with frequent flashbacks to History and Moral Philosophy highschool classes. Then when it’s caught up to the beginning, it goes on to do Juan’s officer training. And it does this all in the confiding, compelling, but unreliable first person narration of Juan Rico himself.

Anybody can call voices from the vast deep, but Heinlein was definitely one of those who got them to answer. Instead of giving you the information you will want, he gives you the information so you can slot it in afterwards. Heinlein was absolutely at his peak when he wrote this in 1959. He had so much technical stylistic mastery of the craft of writing science fiction that he could do something like this and get away with it. I’m tempted to say “don’t try this at home.”

Starship Troopers is best viewed with Heinlein’s juveniles, because it’s definitely the story of a boy becoming a man. More than that, it’s a story of a boy being transformed into a soldier, going through the military training that redefines his identity and loyalty and motivation. And Heinlein had been through this himself, at a different tech level—I have no doubt that the boot camp sections and the bull sessions where they’re talking about the expurgated Bugs and the blankety-blank civilians are as authentic as it is possible to write them, given the constraints of the time.

It’s a juvenile, it’s about going into the world of work. It has no whiff of sex, and the violence is at at a level perfectly acceptable for twelve-year olds. The reason it’s an adult novel is the (much argued over) politics, which I strongly suspect Heinlein put in far more to make people think than as firmly held beliefs intended to convince people. Anyone who wants to argue that it reflects Heinlein’s own opinions should look at the beautiful reference to the War of 1812 as “one of the bush-fire wars on the sidelines of the Napoleonic Conflict.” Heinlein was a patriotic American who could see over the hump of his own prejudices, but I feel sure that wasn’t his own opinion of the War of 1812! Also, throwing in arguments about who ought to get the franchise was one of his favourite ways of being stimulating. In Expanded Universe he suggested just women should have it. I doubt he any more meant that only veterans should have it than he meant that. Probably he’d have been delighted at how much the book has made people think and argue. It’s astonishing that it’s still controversial now, fifty years after it was first published.

Looking up that date as part of this re-read, I was surprised how early it was. I’d somehow gathered the impression that it was in some way a Vietnam protest book, but it isn’t. (I also thought The Liberation of Earth was a Vietnam protest story. The Korean conflict had somehow vanished from the mythologically significant history of the twentieth century by the time I was a teenager.) And was juvenile delinquency terrible in the fifties in the US? It’s not the way the era is remembered, but there’s that discussion about parks you can’t go into and how corporal punishment isn’t allowed—it sounds more like the stereotypical seventies.

The one point where it really feels of its time is the gender politics—Heinlein was well ahead of the curve for 1959 in having women fight as pilots, but… Juan’s thoughts about women being “why we fight” are just weird now. I don’t know how many women read it in 1959 and wanted to have a powered suit (talk about a great equaliser!) or what Heinlein would have made of women’s desire to serve loyally in the front lines putting their bodies between home and war’s desolation. At twelve, I didn’t find it problematic, I just rolled my eyes and went on identifying with Juan Rico. Now, well, I can see the points where Juan isn’t a reliable narrator, in part because what Heinlein’s writing about is the way he’s being absorbed into the MI in much the same way that the bacon I ate for breakfast is being absorbed into me, and in part because he isn’t all that bright and is happy to take simple answers that are handed to him. (Heinlein palms the card of their “philosophy” having mathematical logic underlying it. Show your workings…) And the “women smell nice” is part of Juan’s worldview and not a problem, but the segregated service and the chaperonage is part of the fifties worldview and rubs like grit in an oyster.

More than anything, this is military SF done extremely well. One of the advantages of SF is that you can have an enemy who is unquestionably wrong. The Bugs are interstellar-travelling hive minds, and humanity can’t communicate with them,  and also they attacked first. There’s no moral issue fighting them. (Joe Haldeman has a brilliant reply to this in 1968.) But meanwhile you can just enjoy them being sentimental in the way old soldiers are and getting out there and blasting bugs.

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