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Hugo My Way – 1960 – Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein #BookReview

In Robert A. Heinlein’s controversial Hugo Award-winning bestseller, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest boot camp in the Universe—and into battle against mankind’s most alarming enemy…

Johnnie Rico never really intended to join up—and definitely not the infantry. But now that he’s in the thick of it, trying to get through combat training harder than anything he could have imagined, he knows everyone in his unit is one bad move away from buying the farm in the interstellar war the Terran Federation is waging against the Arachnids.

Because everyone in the Mobile Infantry fights. And if the training doesn’t kill you, the Bugs are more than ready to finish the job…

Cover of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

Title: Starship Troopers | Author: Robert Heinlein | Publisher: Berkley Medallion | Pub. Date originally 1959 | Pages: 208 | ISBN 0425037878| Genre: Sci-Fi | Language: English | Source: Purchased | Starred Review

I’m going to organize this article a bit differently from earlier ones by first talking about the novel, then the “controversy” mentioned in the GoodReads blurb at the top, and finally how it relates to the movie. I think there is something worth considering in all three areas.

Starship Troopers is a coming of age story, one of several written by Heinlein. This is not a John Hughes story but a more classical consideration looking at the growth from child to adult more broadly. Johnny Rico was born into an incredibly rich family and is graduating from high school (not in Buenos Aires for those of you who only saw the movie). His best friend and crush are both signing up for Federal Service to become citizens. Citizens are allowed to vote in his society and a citizen must have completed at least two years of Federal Service. But life is good, there isn’t much need for people to actually do Federal Service, so the recruiters try to talk him out of joining and his father rejects his decision because he wants Johnny to take over the family business. But a man must make decisions for himself, Johnny thinks.

So he joins the Federal Service, is only qualified for the Mobile Infantry, and it’s off to boot camp. The rest of the story is all about Johnny in general, but mostly about what happens *to* Johnny. Boot camp is hard. He screws up. He fights hard to make it though he’s not really sure why. Brotherhood and self-sacrifice are the key lessons. Yes, brotherhood, the men and the women are always segregated in this story. Like I said, this is not a John Hughes coming-of-age story.

Johnny makes it through boot camp and gets into the Mobile Infantry. I would say think of this as a platoon of Iron Men but I’m comfortable assuming Marvel took the idea from Heinlein three years earlier, so Tony Stark was originally Johnny Rico. Consequently, you get pulpy high tech adventures of guys flying (jumping) around and firing off weapons in service to a greater good, even though the book starts with them murdering (strategically we are told) humanoid aliens. There are various military skirimishes that pop up and a campaign develops, with lots of downtime between fighting just like we are always told happens in the real military.

Humans on Earth are also going through a maturation process. By the midpoint of the story Earth has be attacked with devastating results and the population is shaken out of its lethargy. More and more people are volunteering for Federal Service, or maybe there is a draft, thats not quite clear. But the people who use to scorn the idea of service are now being more mature and willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. Well, thats Heinlein’s story and he’s sticking to it.

As a late-golden-age story of high tech military adventures with a fast pace Starship Troopers works just fine. That is certainly how I read it my first time through, and if thats what you like as well it holds up just terrifically.

Now we get to the controversy, though I’ve laid it out pretty much above. Heinlein believes that only veterans of the military should be citizens and awarded the vote, even in times of peace. There are interactions that occur in the context of a class called “History and Moral Philosophy” that discuss how their society ended up in this state, and Heinlein does not take the view that veterans are more moral, or wiser, or just. In some ways I found the discussion interesting and not unreasonable in the context of a history that if factious.

So, some people do not like the story because they find it glorifies the military in general and the use of force in particular. It clearly does. The most common response that I’ve seen is that you become a Citizen through “Federal Service”, presumably there are non-military ways to serve your time. While this is true, no other paths are ever presented, even the ditch diggers are in the military. And of course there are several discussions asking questions like “why should only veterans be able to vote?” Heinlein was not referring to civilian ditch diggers who volunteered for a two-year hitch with the Peace Corps. He meant military veterans. So, to some extent, I don’t see the controversy. Its very clear from the cover, the blurb, and the very first chapter that this is military sci-fi. If thats not your thing, cool, but then just don’t read it. He is glorifying the military, and it is absurd to try and pretend he isn’t.

Now to turn briefly to the movie. I asked the Kali Krew if the movie was just bad, or so bad that it was good, and Lilyn setup up a Twitter poll adding a third option: its honestly good. Of course that choice won.

Now mostly people agree the acting was terrible, the dialog was comic, the military aspects were absurd, and there was one scene that is a classic example of gratuitous nudity. Denise Richards was actually better cast, and did a better acting job, as a nuclear scientist with James Bond. There are no Iron Man suits (boo), the troopers basically spray bullets in every direction (yes occasionally hitting their friends), and even when armed with long range weapons decide to exit from cover and run toward the bug enemy. It’s bad, but I could believe so bad that its good.

The people who like the movie seem to believe it’s a terrific satire of military life. To be sure there are plenty of dumb army things, like the shooting, and dumb macho things involving knives. None of these are in the book. But these elements really just come off as incompetent story telling in the context of a movie. Heinlein wrote plenty of stuff in Starship Troopers that we can look at today (or back in the 90’s) and laugh at because of the military machismo. The controversy above exists because he took it seriously. No, the movie is not a wonderful satire of the military but rather a poor adaptation. Thus my hypothesis: those who think the movie is honestly good never read the book. There is nothing wrong with that, obviously, but I do think it affects whether you believe the movie is a satire or not. And scientists have proven that if you don’t believe it is satire you cannot believe it is good. Those are the rules, I did not make them up.

You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at Bookshop. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.

Published inScience Fiction Book ReviewsStarred ReviewsUncategorized

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