Mon
Jan 23 2012 3:00pm

For Whom the Space Beacon Tolls: Another Look at Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

When writing commentary, there are certain works of literature that require the writer to let the reader know of their inherent handicap. For example, I’ve wanted to write about the SF connections to Joyce’s Ulysses for years, but because there are heaps of Joyce scholars who know more than I do, the fear of an academic stoning prevents me from throwing my hat into that particular ring. Almost as dangerous, I am now talking about Robert Heinlein’s famous novel Starship Troopers. And this one has maybe more contradictory and contested analysis than any other SF novel of the 20th century. So how can I approach such a monstrous topic knowing that no matter what I think of this novel, many will disagree with me, and possibly vehemently?

This is how I’ll do it: I’ll pretend I’ve never read any analysis or criticism of Starship Troopers and just tell you what I think the book really is and why it works so well.

The plot of Starship Troopers isn’t nearly as interesting as many of Heinlein’s other books. In fact, if one were to hand out his books in a writing class in which the goal was to teach usable structure, Starship Troopers would be on the list of things NOT to assign. Heinlein was of course capable of well-plotted books, like Tunnel in the Sky, but here we’re dealing with more voice-oriented stuff. In recently re-reading the novel, the voice I felt being evoked most strongly from the first sentences was not the internal character of Johnny Rico, nor of Heinlein himself. Instead, I experienced a direct channeling of Ernest Hemingway. Can I prove this? No, but I can make an argument. And when I’m done, I encourage any reader to try out the lens of “Hemingway Pastiche” while reading passages of Starship Troopers and not find similarities to For Whom the Bell Tolls or A Farwell to Arms. Even the first line, out of context, feels like a Hemingway thing. Check it out:

I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can’t really be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important-it’s just like the trembling of an eager racehorse in the starting gate.

Heinlein starts specific, puts you in Rico’s situation, then has the character make a disparaging remark about a “softer” character, and then ends the whole thing with an almost poetic metaphor about a trembling horse. The “writer” is Rico, who is not a totally realistic character insofar as most people in real life who are hardboiled and full of alpha-male testosterone, usually don’t sit down and compose beautiful sentences and come up with awesome and sentimental imagery. The actual author (Heinlein) is both paradoxically totally absent and inseperable from what’s going on. Here, I’ll reference a famous attack of this book’s validity: that it was simply a vehicle for Heinlein’s political views. Well, maybe it is. But if that’s true, he’s adopted a contradictory voice right from the first sentence. We know from this that Rico is not going to be a one-note character. By making Rico a reflective, Hemingway-esque narrator, the novel already tips its hat at the kind of writing it’s homaging.

Again, is this the only reading of this book? No. But it’s certainly what I felt upon this re-read. Any text about war will be accused of glorifying war to an extent. But when a novel like this goes so far to literally make every aspect about war, you have to wonder if you’re not meant to read between the lines. This isn’t an example of a a fully realized world. I know many point out that the specifics of the armor and drop ships have influenced everything from Aliens to Star Wars. But really, these are superficial side effects of what seems to be a much more disturbing and possibly satirical narrative tone.

Here’s another example of what I mean. Check out this passage from near the middle of the book when we’re right in the thick of a lot of the actual war stuff.

…Six minutes! All hands, save yourselves, pick up your mates. Home on any beacon! Sauve-qui-”

I hurried.

His head came off as I tried to drag him out of his suit, so I dropped him and got out of there. On a later drop I would have had sense enough to salvage his ammo, but I was far too sluggy to think; I simply bounced away from there and tried to rendezvous with the strong point we had been heading for.

The deliberateness of the over-simplification of the language is conflated with eloquence in passages like this. Heinlein’s use of the word “simply” before the word “bounced” is helpful in making this SF world seem real, but it’s also just a good, whimsical set of words together which almost have no place in such a grim setting. The long-lens of someone who admits to having a future experience is also highly effective here, and rounds out the voice nicely of a character/writer who is highly introspective. Later on the same page, there’s this:

No matter, it was a beacon; I headed for it, using the last of my jump juice lavishly-got aboard just as they were about to button up and shortly thereafter was in the Voortrek, such a state of shock that I couldn’t remember my serial number.

I’ve heard it called a “strategic victory”- but I was there and I claim we took a terrible licking.

Never mind that what we’ve been told this book is about, the success of this novel is the atmosphere it creates though the power of a voice. The above passage proves this in several ways. First, a more efficient sentence would probably be “but I was there and we took a terrible licking.” Heinlein knows this, but he has Rico say “I claim we took a terrible licking" because the word choice gestures at the act of the solider trying to be a writer, perhaps the reverse of Heinlein; the soul of a writer who was once a solider. But the space being explored in Starship Troopers is all about how those two things overlap.

The chicken/egg scenario of which created the other isn’t clear. Would Rico have written down his experiences if he’d had a different life set within the same fictional universe? Unlikely. Would Heinlein have been the spectacular science fiction writer without his military service background? Equally unlikely. In this way, Hemingway and Heinlein are extremely similar. They’re not glorifying war by writing about it, nor are they writing outright satire of war. Instead, they’re just calling it like they see it. You’ve got to write what you know, and Heinlein knew the military. And because of his awesome imagination, he also knew science fiction.

For me, the author/character voice paradox is what makes Starship Troopers so compelling. Forget story, “character development” or how great the world is. From a sentence-to-sentence level, he keeps me going. Which is why Heinlein is among the greats, not just of SF, but of all literature.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.

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14 comments
john mullen
1. johntheirishmongol
Even at his worst, Heinlein was great at putting sentences together. This is a wonderful book and Rico is one of his best characters. And as for finding a political philosphy, it pretty much changes from one book to another. About the only constants are that he likes redheads, cats, and to be left alone.
j p
2. sps49
Bill Mauldin also wrote about war as he saw it, to great satirical effect. It's part of what the military is.
Eugene R.
3. Eugene R.
Very nice look at the "voice" of Starship Troopers, a good part of what makes Heinlein so memorable an author. I must add, in regards to the way Heinlein phrases Rico's contradiction of the Official History - "But I was there and I claim we took a terrible beating" - that I hear echoes of Huckleberry Finn in that phrasing. Which may not be surprising as Heinlein, Twain, and Finn were all good Missouri boys.
Eugene R.
4. AlBrown
Interesting focus on the voice, as it is one of the most compelling parts of this book. Clipped, businesslike and functional, numb when describing the horrors of war. But with emotions battling with that desire to be rational. Some may say that Juan Rico is too good to be true, but I have met his equals, who really do exist in the real world, despite there not being many of them. And I thank God that they exist, and that they serve.
Part of this book is wish fulfilment--Heinlein whose service was cut short by illness in peacetime imagining what it would have been like to be in combat. Many of the little details he got from his own Naval service, and I am sure that others came from talking to those who had returned from the front lines.
The military extrapolation was brilliant, and is one of the reasons this book rings so true. This is a man who studied his military history, and his science, and understood everything from high strategy to tactics on the ground, and did a brilliant job of extrapolating technology. The reason he is so frequently copied, and almost universally read by those in the Armed Forces, is because his weapons and tactics have a ring of truth to them.
The social stuff, while more controversial, is extremely compelling as well. A society where you have to earn your vote, through either military service (shown in the book), or other service (clearly stated but not shown). Criminals are not just rehabilitated, they are punished for their crimes physically. While some get caught on those details, he is also clear to state that the society is democratic, not a dictatorship. Just like Howard Zinn with his "People's History," Heinlein has not convinced me that his positions are valid, but I have to admit, like Zinn, he makes me think.
And while some say his politics varied from book to book, there was also a high degree of consistency. I forget where I read it, but at some point, Heinlein made the point that Juan Rico and Mike Smith (of Stranger in a Strange Land) had more in common than people thought. Both books were centered around a young man who was willing to give his life for others.
Eugene R.
5. antares
Heinlein himself said his politics were consistent. I think sometimes his characters -- usually minor characters -- spoke his own views, as in "Logic of Empire": Radical and conservative are terms for emotional attitudes, not sociological opinions. . . . Men are constrained by necessity and build up rationalizations to account for their acts.
Clark Myers
6. ClarkEMyers
Interesting contrast in the cover here and the image with Jo Walton's
Over the hump: Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers of March 2009:
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.
Eli Bishop
7. EliBishop
I agree that the voice is what makes Starship Troopers memorable, and I think it's also what makes it problematic for many people. Rico's ability to come out of these experiences with his point of view and his powers of observation basically intact (he mentions having been in a state of shock, but that's not really reflected in the tone of the narration) is in itself a statement of optimism about war; and it's a much more emotionally convincing one than any amount of rah-rah rhetoric would be, because it's grounded in character-- we can believe how well integrated he is with his society and his work because he connects so well with us.

Books like The Forever War and Armor were direct reactions against that kind of statement (if not to the novel itself). They feature intelligent and capable protagonists who, after being dropped into combat, never fully get out of that state of shock, can just barely describe their experience, are hindered from connecting with other people by the survival skills they've learned, and are aware of having wasted their lives on an avoidable war. That's clearly a political statement, like much of the literature that came out of Vietnam and World War One. Heinlein, intentionally or not, made an opposite political statement in Starship Troopers just by painting with such a clear, lively narrative palette; the satirical element is deflated by the very strong feeling that the world is basically sane and so is Rico. (And I'm not sure I'd call his introspective tone "contradictory"; I think it's quite possible that Heinlein, given his peacetime naval background, really did think of an ideal soldier as being a sort of unpretentious gentleman.)
Eugene R.
8. outsidecounsel
It's odd to think that this is a controversial book-- it is one of Heinlein's least sexist or racist works, and although it exaults in military service, it is not jingoistic and it does not glorify war. The action scenes are indeed solid writing, and for once the blahblahblah that often bogs him down is handled in reasonable bites.
Ryan Britt
9. ryancbritt
@8
Good point!

@7
I think I used the word "contradictory" because that's how it struck me. The challenge in talking about a book like this is that I live in the post-Forever War world, meaning I already know there were responses to this book, rendering any of the offense I might take as a reader from the prose alone almost moot. It's weird, but sometimes I feel like the politics of this are all in our heads. (Heinlein's head too!)
In anycase, I like the term "unpretentious gentleman." :-)
Constance Sublette
10. Zorra
Julius Caesar may be one of the very few who was one of those astounding military leaders who was also a great writer. He wrote poetry as well as non-fiction works. Richard the Lion Heart is another great military leader, as well as a terror-inspiring hand-to-hand combater, according to contemporary accounts -- and he wrote very good poetry in the lenga d'òc, or Occitan, which seems to have become more acceptable these days in medieval scholarship.

A caveat -- Heinlein didn't do any soldiering. He was in the navy, and he never saw combat. Quite different from a writer like Julius Caesar . Or from Hemingway, who may never performed in anything as heroically and gloriously as he progressively boasted he did, but was indeed seriously wounded as an ambulance driver taking he wounded from the very dangerous combat fields in Italy.

Love, C.
Eugene R.
11. The other Will
Heinlein's portrayal of the Mobile Infantry was anything but brilliant, unless the intent was to model it after the Soviet Army of WW2. It reads like the ignorant idealism of someone who only saw things at a low level, which was his actual experience. At the same time, it's unfair to say that he never did any soldiering. The majority of service members didn't directly participate in combat, even in the Army. It's just that the ones who did who were better able to sell their memoirs afterwards.
Eugene R.
12. S.M. Stirling
I think the use of "claim" here is an ironic comment on the "strategic victory".

When offical proclamaitions say things like "strategic victory" they're making a -claim- of victory in what is usually a defeat.

By using "claim" with "I was there", Rico's voice does a dry number of official communiques.
Eugene R.
13. S.M. Stirling
I've known an -awful- lot of veterans -- my father (professional, 1939-64), etc. -- and Rico always rang true to me.

Some people are permanently scrambled by experiencing combat; others dislike the whole business but 'embrace the suck' and go back to normal life afterwards.

Some guys actively enjoy fighting, or consider the cameraderie a high point of their lives; a smaller minority also actively enjoy killing. These tend to be rather problematic in civilian life but very useful.

I read one medal citation about a man in Korea who killed 15-20 Chinese soldiers in a night raid in the course of a few minutes -- went down a trench chopping and stabbing with a sharpened entrenching tool, killing a man roughly every second stride, leaving a trail of corpses.

When asked why he volunteered for this sort of action he said "I was bored".

Compared to this guy, Rico was bloody Wilfred Owen.
Eugene R.
14. Lou Lou
Hmm. This novel has been sitting unread on my shelf for nearly a decade. Even though I've been reading Heinlein since the 80s, I couldn't bring myself to pick this one up because I wasn't particularly au fait when that movie came out in 97. Thank you for this piece, you've convinced me to get past the cinematic horror and give the book a try....

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