Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: Starship Troopers

Robert A. Heinlein
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

I was surprised that I liked this book as much as I did, given all the controversy about it.

It is set in the future, at a time when Earth is at war with an alien race, the hive-minded Bugs. The overly-idealistic citizen governments of Earth collapsed sometime back in the late twentieth century and the world is now governed by a (some would say fascist) military Federation. Becoming a soldier is very difficult, and only a small number of people even try, much less make it – but it alone earns you the right to vote.

You ride along with one of the tiny pawns in the Bug war, Juan “Johnnie” Rico, as he changes from a green recruit into a hard, professional soldier. Johnnie is in the Mobile Infantry, the grunts, the front line of combat against the Bugs. He is part of an epic war that will determine the fate of the human race, but he has no time to worry about higher levels of politics and strategy – his life revolves completely around getting enough sack time, not getting in trouble with the lieutenant, and keeping himself and the other members of his platoon alive.

Johnnie isn’t someone I would necessarily want to be, or even be friends with, but he is colorful and an appropriate guide to his time. Heinlein also creates a creative and consistent, if scary and hostile, world around his main character – both on the large scale (the Bugs, the state of Earth and its colonies, military and government structure) and on the small scale (boot camp, combat drops, everyday details of military life both in and out of battle).

For example - the mantra of the soldiers is to always be “on the bounce!” This comes from the heavily armored suits they wear in combat on other planets, which allow them to jump long distances and perform several tasks while in midair.

Yes, this book does glorify the military. And Heinlein does inject his tiresome personal-responsibility philosophy into the story, chiefly through Johnnie’s high school History and Moral Philosophy teacher Mr. Dubois. But the libertarian preaching wasn't as intertwined with the plot as in some of his other books, so I could skim those sections without losing much of the story. Plus, Johnnie doesn’t have an opportunity to have a lot of interaction with women, so Heinlein’s misogynistic tendencies stay mostly under cover (or, when they come out, at least they fit his rough-and-ready warrior characters).

The book was much better than Paul Verhoeven's movie, which was more war-action-oriented and didn’t go into much of the detail of the preparation and hardening of the soldiers, which was what about three-quarters of the book was about. The movie also invented characters that didn’t exist in the book and drastically altered the roles of others, to its detriment.

I think it is important to stress that I appreciated this book as a character study. I do not recommend it as a guide to attitudes about the military and government. Two excellent books already reviewed here on Cheeze Blog were written at least partly in reaction to Troopers, and both would help in maintaining some perspective on war after reading it:

* Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
* The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

Didn't I see this movie with you on one of your brief sojourns away from your Antarctican lair? Though if I remember correctly, we had to go in the morning so we could get enough seats for all of your tentacles to rest comfortably.

It's funny -- after the movie came out, I re-read the book and was also surprised that I liked it as much as I did. There were very few of the cringe inducing things I come to fear from Heinlein (e.g., spanking references and the love interests calling themselves "Mama"). Don't get me wrong, though - I do love Heinlein, especially his stuff for the younger crowd, where it's mostly adventure and much less politics.

I'm also not as bothered by the misogyny complaint. Most of his women are generally smarter and braver than the men. My main complaint is that they all want to drop everything to have babies. But given the era he wrote in, I think his female characters generally have a lot going for them.

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