A Genre Cornerstone: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

When examining military science fiction, all roads, at one point or another, lead to Starship Troopers, written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1959 and rooted in his service in the U.S. Navy. So much has been written about this book that it’s a bit intimidating to approach it as a reviewer, but in re-reading it for this series, I found something I can add to the conversation. While the book holds up even better than I expected, there are a few things in it that a modern audience might not appreciate. All fiction reflects the time in which it was written, and while I am not quite old enough to remember the world of the U.S. Navy in the 1930s, I am old enough to have seen remnants of that era during my own youth, and my service in the Coast Guard, which started in the 1970s. So let me proceed in putting some aspects of the work in context for modern readers.

I first encountered Starship Troopers, in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, when I was in high school. Despite the anti-military sentiments of the time, I was determined to join the military. The biggest inspiration for this decision was my father, who served in World War II as an Army engineer, and continued his service afterward in the Army Reserve. I read a lot of military fiction and non-fiction, which only reinforced my interest. I was also inspired by comic book characters like Captain America and Nick Fury and his Howling Commandoes. When I first saw the Berkley Medallion paperback edition of Starship Troopers on a shelf in the store, it wasn’t the cover that grabbed me—it was one of those abstract covers by Paul Lehr, heavy on atmosphere, but not very representative of the contents. The bug-like aliens looked more mechanical than biological, and the human figures around them looked very static and passive. But I recognized Heinlein’s name, the cover copy grabbed my attention, and I soon found myself reading a book like no other that I had ever encountered.

Heinlein, referred to as the “dean of American science fiction writers” on that paperback copy of Starship Troopers, needs very little introduction to the readers of this website. His military service is an important touchstone when examining Starship Troopers. Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929. He served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, and on the destroyer USS Roper. His Navy service, however, was cut short by illness, and he received a medical discharge from the Navy for tuberculosis in 1934. He started writing SF in 1939, and was a favorite of editor John Campbell, often appearing in Astounding Science Fiction. He was extremely popular in the field until his death in 1988. Along the way, he garnered quite a bit of popular and critical attention: his fiction was often on best seller lists, won award after award, and broke into the mainstream with stories in the Saturday Evening Post.

Among his output were a series of juvenile SF novels for Charles Scribner’s Sons. These books often put their young protagonists into serious and adult situations—and along the way, Heinlein and the publishers clashed over their content. Starship Troopers, written in 1959, had been intended by Heinlein to be another of those juveniles, but the changes the publisher wanted proved to be too much for Heinlein, and he parted company with Scribner’s. He sold an abridged version of the story, “Starship Soldier,” that appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction in two parts, and Putnam soon published a hardcover edition in 1960. Heinlein himself was surprised when the book won the Hugo Award in 1960, despite the controversy it created within the SF community.

Heinlein-StarshipSoldierFor those who might need a refresher, Starship Troopers starts with the hero, Johnny Rico, in the midst of an attack on an alien world. This bit of action helps whet our appetite, as we go back in time to meet the hero as a shallow and not very admirable young rich kid who joins the military largely as the result of peer pressure. He lives on a future Earth where the franchise is limited to those who have done a hitch in the military, or equivalent civilian service. He doesn’t think it had any impact, but a mandatory course in school, “History and Moral Philosophy” (H&MP), clearly had an influence on his decision to sign up. Rico ends up in his last choice for a service assignment, the Mobile Infantry (MI), which fights in powered armor suits that could each take on a contemporary tank battalion, if not two or three. He goes through basic training, finds himself well suited for the MI, and starts working his way up the enlisted ranks, until he is convinced to apply for Officer Candidate School. Here he attends more H&MP classes, learns more about the service, and more about why and how humans wage war. As the book ends, he is serving as an officer in one of the biggest operations in the war so far. Along the way, especially in the scenes that are set in those H&MP classes, we get large doses of philosophy and concepts that, if he doesn’t necessarily espouse, Heinlein clearly wanted us to think about.

While Starship Troopers is very much of the “officer” variety of military SF, concerning itself more with philosophy and strategy rather than action on the front lines, it is an unabashed tribute to the enlisted personnel who do the work, the fighting and the dying. It is dedicated not only to one sergeant in particular, but to all sergeants everywhere. The MI is a lean and idealized military organization, with a bare minimum of officers, where everyone fights, and the officers lead from the front. Every officer must serve in the enlisted ranks before becoming an officer. Even the society at large, where you have to work for your rights, suggests the influence of enlisted personnel. Every officer seems to be guided by the advice my father gave me on the day I was commissioned, “Take care of your troops, Al, and they’ll take care of you.” You can see Heinlein taking aim at the elitism of the Navy he served in, and going out of his way to hold up the rank and file for some positive attention.

Women are also given positive attention in the book, though the role of women in Starship Troopers might seem a bit archaic to modern readers who are used to a military where women fill a wide range of roles. In the novel, women have separate roles from the men, and are allowed to serve as naval officers only because of abilities inherent in their gender (a dated notion in and of itself). While women might be found in uniform in Heinlein’s day, their service was limited to reserve status, and shoreside clerical duties. For example, until 1973, the year I joined the Coast Guard, there were no women in Coast Guard active duty service. All were limited to service in a women’s reserve that went by the acronym SPARS. Women were not allowed into the Coast Guard Academy until 1976. But soon thereafter, women began to serve afloat, and all sorts of “firsts” began to occur, including women in command at sea. Those women faced a lot of resistance from an organization that had been exclusively male for generations. The traditions and customs of the service, and even its daily language and slang, did not easily adapt to the presence of women, and in those days the statement, “a woman could do that better than you,” would be instantly taken as an insult. In light of these realities, Heinlein’s portrayal of women commanding naval vessels was, in its day, shockingly subversive.

Heinlein also went out of his way to portray a military where people of all colors, nationalities, and creeds served without prejudice; a world where all are treated equally, and the only race that matters is the human race. This stood in stark contrast to the Navy of Heinlein’s day, where sailors were segregated and given different duties based on race. Cooks and stewards, for example, were almost exclusively people of color, usually either blacks from the U.S. or Filipinos. Filipinos could serve in the U.S. Armed Forces because of the status of the Philippines as a U.S. colony, and later commonwealth. The practice of limiting blacks to certain ratings and duties ended with an Executive Order from President Truman in 1948 that desegregated the Armed Forces, with equal rights not being granted in society at large until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Filipino segregation to specific ratings continued until 1973, and as late as the end of the 1970s, it was possible to go to sea (as I did) with a galley crew almost entirely made up of Filipino personnel.

First person novels often have a moment near the beginning where the protagonist is given an opportunity to describe themselves. I call them “mirror moments,” because one of the common ways this happens is for the protagonist to look into a mirror and give a description that the reader can lock onto. In Starship Troopers, however, that moment doesn’t come until the end, when Johnny mentions that the language of his home was Tagalog, a language of the Philippines. Heinlein obviously wanted the reader to be exposed to the idea of Johnny Rico as a capable and heroic character before revealing this fact, thus confronting their preconceived notions. As a Naval officer of his day, Heinlein would have been waited on and served by Filipinos. By making a Filipino man the hero of his book, he was making a powerful statement against the prejudices of the day.

HeinleinNow, before you think that I’m advocating Heinlein as a model of enlightened thinking, we need to look at some other aspects of his future society. He portrays in a positive light a government established by a military coup, with a justice system based on brutal corporal and capital punishment, with franchise limited to a few. During compulsory political indoctrination the U.S. Declaration of Independence is mocked, among other “quaint” ideas, and students are told that morality is not inherent in humans, but learned. Another negative aspect of Heinlein’s future society was its embrace of the harshest aspects of Darwinism, with population pressure being seen as the cause of all wars, and survival of the fittest being the only guiding principle of humanity’s interactions with the “Bugs.” I am pretty sure that it’s here we find the material that caused Heinlein to part company with Charles Scribner’s Sons.

The world of the 1950s was a time of great uncertainty. The euphoria after WWII had given way to cynicism after the stalemated Korean War. The triumph of capitalism over communism was by no means expected or guaranteed, and any questioning of the Founding Fathers was met with distrust. Older, harsher forms of justice were giving way to newer, more “scientific” and “humane” methods of punishment, incarceration and rehabilitation. But while I would argue with the morality and desirability of the solutions Heinlein puts forward in Starship Troopers, his projected society does a good job of illustrating some of the weaknesses of the culture of the U.S. in the 1950s. Unlike the society portrayed by Heinlein, however, ours has reached the 21st Century without global war, and without collapsing under its own weight. We have pursued a different path regarding criminal justice since then, doubling down on the system of the 1950s with our zero tolerance sentencing policies and mass incarcerations, a path which many are now questioning. Relations between different races, creeds, and nationalities are fraught with difficulties. We are far from having a functional world-wide government or even a consistent rule of law, with low-level conflict seeming to be a constant in world affairs. We have found no perfect system of government, but instead keep muddling along as best we can.

Heinlein lived at a time when technology was totally transforming warfare. As a youth, he would have had the opportunity to encounter Civil War veterans who’d lived at a time when warships fought under sail, and horses were not only vital to the cavalry, but the backbone of army logistics. He saw technology transform the battlefields of World War I into a static, grinding war of attrition. And as a young naval officer, he served aboard one of the world’s first aircraft carriers, experimenting with new technologies that would further transform warfare during WWII. That war saw technology create conditions where maneuver warfare predominated, with fluid battlefields and rapidly shifting front lines. With the development of the atomic bomb, there was a time when the world wondered if warfare might be obsolete, but the Korean War showed that conventional wars could still be fought in the midst of a nuclear stalemate. Heinlein was at his best in his portrayal of the Mobile Infantry, a force whose name illustrated its strength, the mobility that allowed units to be inserted from orbit anywhere on a world, and move quickly around the battlefield, projecting firepower that ranged all the way from anti-personnel to nuclear weapons. The weapons, tactics, and mobility of the powered armor is a military member’s dream come true. And Heinlein was adept at explaining this technology, letting us first see it in action, and then detailing how it worked in a matter of fact manner. It is no surprise that Heinlein’s powered suit is often mentioned whenever advanced technology on the battlefield is discussed. His portrayal of military gear that would fit into the context of an interstellar war was spot on.

There is another aspect of Starship Troopers that has influenced military science fiction to this day…and unfortunately, it is not a positive influence. That is the presence of the dreaded expository lump, a period in which the narrative grinds to a halt while the author stops to explain something about politics, or strategy, or tactics, or weapons systems. Military SF authors love their technology, and since the technology often impacts the story, such explanations are often required. Heinlein always had a tendency to have older characters in his stories, often educators, who lecture at the protagonist, and the History and Moral Philosophy classes in Starship Troopers took this tendency to an extreme. Heinlein was highly skilled and able to keep his readers onboard during these explanations—a level of skill that is unfortunately not always present in those who have followed in his footsteps.

For good and ill, Starship Troopers has been a template, or touchstone, for all military SF that followed it. Even if authors disagree with the philosophies Heinlein espoused, they find that their works are in dialogue with Heinlein’s work. At its best, this novel made people think. It was very compelling, and easy to read, but there was a depth to it that previous SF war stories had lacked. In the end, Starship Troopers proved not to be a “juvenile” story in any way, shape, or form. Instead, it was a sign of maturity for the field of science fiction, a sign that the genre was growing up beyond its roots in pulp fiction, and becoming a forum for serious extrapolation and adult discussions.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for five decades, especially science fiction that deals with military matters, exploration and adventure. He is also a retired reserve officer with a background in military history and strategy.

63 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!