I’m certain, that, if asked, more than a few readers will list Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as one of their favorite novels… and more than a few others will denounce it vigorously as a fascist military dystopia, no matter how the semi-libertarian Heinlein portrayed “our” future society. I’m one of those who happens to like it, because, after having been a military pilot and having served as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., Heinlein’s insights into both the military and into what supports workable government and what does not seem to me, at least, to be validated by what I’ve observed in politics and government over the past several decades. At its core, Starship Troopers examines what is required for effective and responsible government. For Heinlein, those who govern must pay a price for that privilege, and since he believes in broad-based governance, that means that every member of the electorate must pay through a term of military service. He doesn’t require military service, and no one is forced to serve, but if you don’t serve, you can’t vote, and you cannot be elected to public office. Interestingly enough, Heinlein does not suggest that this future society is optimal – only that it will work.
What is often ignored by those who criticize Starship Troopers is the fact that Heinlein was literally only fictionalizing the predictions of earlier scholars and politicians, such as deTocqueville and MacCauley, who predicted that any democracy would eventually fail because too great a proportion of the electorate would vote themselves greater and greater benefits without having paid for them in one way or another. Yet few criticize those who first made those points, which may also demonstrate why fiction is often more powerful than either scholarship or rhetoric directly from politicians.
What I also find amusing is that, in a sense, the military draft in place at the time that Heinlein wrote the book was in fact considered a price of “freedom” during World War II and immediately thereafter. In the Vietnam era that followed, however, the wide-spread use of educational deferments placed that price disproportionately on the less-advantaged males in American society, one of the factors leading to the abolition of the draft, in turn effectively repudiating any idea that citizens owed any moral debt to society, which was, of course, Heinlein’s point in his fictionalization of a future collapse of American government.
The other basic point underlying Starship Troopers is the idea that, like it or not, force in some form determines whether societies survive, and that any society that fails to understand that is doomed to fail. Heinlein was not, in fact, glorifying force, at least not as I read the book, but looking back through history and pointing out that such was the pattern human societies had exhibited from time immemorial. In presenting a biologically and socially very different culture in the “Bugs,” he was essentially postulating that any intelligent species would be both aggressive and territorial… and interestingly enough, I’ve recently read several scholarly articles suggesting the same thing, although the scholarly types use the term “predatory.” To me, that’s aggressive and territorial.
In the end, in Starship Troopers, Heinlein offers, if through a glass darkly, a fairly accurate picture of human faults, foibles, and virtues… and that may well be why some don’t like the book… and why I do.
L.E. Modesitt, Jr. can be found online at https://www.lemodesittjr.com
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (978-0-7653-1960-9 / $29.99) will be available from Tor Books on August 17th 2010.
- Space Cadets and Starship Troopers
- David Brin: Beyond This Horizon
- David Drake: Starship Soldier
- David Hartwell: Double Star
- Rudy Rucker: Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Tunnel in the Sky
- Joan Slonczewski: Have Space Suit—Will Travel
- Charles Stross: Glory Road
- Michael Swanwick: Have Space Suit—Will Travel
- Vernor Vinge: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
- Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium
In terms of political philosophy, the premise of Starship Troopers owes a great deal to one of the forms of the Greek idea of the city-state, specifically a polity, government by the military class.
Your comment about
Sorry, it entered too soon.
Your comment about “force in some form determines whether societies survive” reminds me of an observation by H. Beam Piper that diplomacy is great but must ultimately be ratified on the battlefield. Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is one of my favorite books.
Personally, I found ST rather boring and poorly plotted; it read more like a propaganda piece than a novel to me. In contrast, I’m currently about 3/4 through The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which strikes me as a much better book, overall.
I’m inclined to agree with your view of the book, and thus I too like it. You did make one observation that I missed, however, and I really like it.
“Interestingly enough, Heinlein does not suggest that this future society is optimal – only that it will work.” This is a good point.
People always seem to focus on Heinlein’s later bloated work rather than his ‘juveniles’ where his genius really shines. Citizen of the Galaxy is brilliant, Orphans of the Sky brutally sad, Red Planet an enjoyable romp with depth and also highly recommended: Between Planets, Space Cadet, and of course The Star Beast. His final juvenile was Starship Troopers, rejected by his current publisher and picked up by someone else.
Boring and poorly plotted? Heinlein’s later work is populated by impossible characters. Mike and Lazarus act as Greek God’s in a large scale drama. In the juveniles we find real characters in believable circumstances. Some people might find that boring but only because they find large swaths of their own lives to be such. Juan Rico in this book is normal. He is afraid, eager to please, he loves his parents without making sexual passes at them, and he has moments of doubt. The character is beautifully written. The arguments on philosophy are almost shocking because they are founded on logic. Most philosophers are no more logical than the hysterical mobs they represent. While I cherish the work of Robert Heinlein this remains my favorite. And while he never claims this world to be Utopian, living in a world that actually works seems rather ideal to my mind.
Finally! An author that put a little thought and effort into this series of “What’s Your Fav Heinlein” posts. I have to say that so far they have been pretty lame. Nicely done Mr. Modesitt!
“he loves his parents without making sexual passes at them”
lol, he rather went off the deep end with the sexuality stuff by the end. Though I spose that adult incest between consenting parties using birth control ought to be acceptable, if you’re not religious (which I don’t think he was when he wrote them)
One point on the price of a franchise. Citizenship in Starship Troopers doesn’t require military service – it requires a term of federal service. In Expanded Universe Heinlein explains that:
… 95% of voters are what we call today “former members of federal civil service.”
This point is probably not made as clearly as it could be in the novel, but it certainly is stated that when you enroll in the federal service you may end up in a labor battalion or other non-combatant job. You can state a preference, but you probably won’t get it. People may be confused about this because Rico is only interested in joining a combat corps – everything else is to him a “booby prize”.
Comments are closed.