Vintage Science Fiction Month Book Review: “Starship Troopers” by Robert Heinlein (1959)

This is a cover for a 1980 edition. There are many like it–and many un-like it–but this one is my favorite.

Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.

The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.

Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.

Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.

Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”

Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”

There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.

So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?

Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.

Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.

Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!

Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless.  But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…

Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.

That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.

But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.

The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.

It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.

Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:

“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.)  The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.

Is this fascism, as we understand it today?

Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.

Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.

To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.

There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.

That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?

Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”

And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.

In that regard, Starship Troopers certainly offers plenty of food for thought, and it’s easy to see why Heinlein chose to put such an austere message in the form of a science-fiction story, at a time when the United States, as a prosperous superpower, was beginning to focus on the possibility of traveling into space. As President Kennedy said in 1962, three years after the publication of Starship Troopers:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? 

…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…

Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.

15 Comments

  1. This is a very thoughtful, comprehensive and challenging review to the mythos which has grown up around Heinlein’s Starship Trooper, a book that I loath with a passion for its simplistic views.
    Putting aside the politics (I’m a fine one to talk, European; old school hard-left pragmatic wing) his views of military really annoy me, although he did serve, since he was in the navy he must have had little idea of what a grunt/foot-slogger had to put up with, and this business of everyone taking part in battle- had the guy never heard of the logistical train? Gimme a break. And finally Rico’s father turns up as a marine? Aww c’mon man. Had he ever seen any pictures of the German Volkstrumm (home guard) in 1945.
    To my mind the only good thing to come out of this book was Paul Verhoeven’s less than respectful take in the film of the same name and subsequent animations which explored all sorts of levels.
    I’ll go and settle down with some households chores before I start on the rest of his canon.
    I repeat, great comprehensive review, all angles covered.
    Thanks

    1. And thank you for this excellent comment! And I agree, his father joining up too was a bit much!

  2. Sorry – this isn’t my kind of book. I never read much of “classical” SF – I got into SF through the back door of fantasy like Tolkien and SF writers like LeGuin. I tried Heinlein a couple of times and found the books so boring that I quit reading. My take on war, moral philosophy, and the evolutionary potential of social insects is completely different. But I was intrigued that you included one of my books in the “Related” section. You should really try some of my termite books pretty soon.

    1. I know. My TBR list is out of control! But I have to finish “Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars” first. 🙂

      And yes, as strange as it seems, in some ways I do see your books as similar to Heinlein’s, in the sense of using the concept of a futuristic world to explore philosophical concepts. One of my favorite things about sci-fi is how it can be used to imagine entirely different societies with different grounding principles. But you’re right that Heinlein could be rather dry and didactic to the point where it became boring to read.

      1. I feel complimented that you would put me in the same category as one of the SF greats! The big difference is, I want fiction to be character-based. I was just rereading your review of Part One of MWFB and I do hope you’ll persist with Part Four, because a lot of Robbie’s character flaws that you mention reach a resolution there.

  3. This is one of the books by Heinlein that I didn’t read. Stranger in a Strange Land is where I started with him and he really went off the rails in the subsequent books. If you boil down Starship Troopers you have a society that is only good at killing bugs. Normally I’d agree with you on a society of military voters wanting war, but Eisenhower avoided war and warned against the military/industrial complex. Kennedy was getting us out of Vietnam before assassinated, Nixon ended Vietnam, belatedly. It’s W. Bush and Cheney, chicken hawks that got us mired down in the Middle East and along with Bone Spurs Trump that are gung ho to fight a war.

    1. I think part of Heinlein’s point is that people who served in the military won’t start a war unnecessarily. The real-world record on that is mixed, though…

      I’ll have to re-read Stranger in a Strange Land; it’s been a long time.

  4. Very thoughtful and enjoyable read.

    I also rather enjoyed Starship Troopers when I read it, in much the same vein I’d enjoy Sharpe with added philosophy. The philosophy wasn’t my favourite part, but I didn’t hate it. But then I agree with a fair amount of what Heinlein is saying about civic virtue and collectivism – or at least, voluntary collectivism, which I suspect is the conflict Heinlein wanted to show (apologies if you said that and I missed it in my tiredness).

    And it seems a grimly appropriate time to say it, and to say that he’s not wrong about the price of good things. Violence can’t solve big problems, but it can remove your ability to try and solve them if someone else thinks you’re a problem. “collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted” – that bit seems a bit eerie now.

    I’m very aware that a lot of the people causing the problems read these words and came out with very different notions to me. That’s the big problem with encouraging people to be brave and uncompromising and single-minded above all else – people with crazy ideas read them too. Which is why I get the heavy criticism of some of the political ideas there. Just I mostly didn’t bother to think about the crazier bits and enjoyed the war story. Which was mostly what I was there for. But I don’t think I could have enjoyed the war story if I was hating the philosophy.

    1. Thank you for this excellent and insightful comment.

      Yes, I think you’re exactly right that Heinlein was drawing a distinction between voluntary and compulsory collectivism. I felt he could have made it a bit more clearly, but as you say, it’s a war story, and if he’d gone any deeper into the philosophy, it might have gone very far off-track. And of course, he couldn’t show much detail on the bug civilization to contrast with humanity, since by the nature of the story they have to seem alien and unknown.

  5. I read this many moons ago, in my younger days, and found it a bit of a slog. Your ‘review’, on the other hand, is a much better read! I happily confess to enjoying the film much more than the book 🙂
    I’ve always liked that speech by Kennedy, especially the part about choosing to do things because they are hard. Sadly, these days, people (generally speaking) seem to be happy to sit back and wait for things to be done for them, for decisions to be made for them instead of taking responsibility for their own lives.

    By the way, Liam is really enjoying reading Revenge of the Sith 🙂 He’s at the part where Anakin and Obi-Wan are about to face Dooku.

    1. Thank you. 🙂 I’ve never actually seen the film of Starship Troopers, though I understand it’s a cult classic, and many people have told me I should. I’ll check it out, eventually.

      Glad to hear he is enjoying it! One of the things I really liked about the book is in that part–there’s a brief scene with Count Dooku that gives some insight into his motives and personality. I liked that, because his part in the film is barely more than a cameo.

  6. Heinlein is one of my favourite old school scifi writers, but I don’t like everything he wrote and was eventually turned off by some of his more extreme positions. I haven’t read Starship Troopers and I’m happy for things to stay that way! Great review, btw!

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