My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was never a big fan of military science fiction growing up. Oh, I was a huge fan of Star Trek, and still am, but never a fan of “hard” military science fiction. Star Trek, although inarguably set in a military situation, was more about the science and diplomacy then about the battles and tactics of Starfleet. Even the recent shows and the J.J. Abrams reboot stressed the more humanitarian peace-keeping aspect of the Federation. So never having being a fan of the sub-genre I was remiss in my geekdom by never reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
When the movie version Starship Troopers by Paul Verhoeven came out in 1997 I did see that. Unfortunately or not, that movie has little in common with the book. In my family we jokingly refer to it as “Boobs and Bugs”. That term actually gives you a good idea of two of the main differences between the movie and the book. Although the books main internal conflict is the war with a species of intelligent insect like creature, very little of the book actually deals with the battles with this enemy. As far as females go, there is an unsurprising lack of female characters. The Mobile Infantry, or MI, is exclusively male. Women are not excluded from the story, in fact their praises as better pilots is repeated throughout the book. It is, however, obviously a book centered on male characters.
Incidentally, I do recommend you see the movie version if you haven’t. It’s a lot of fun in a silly sort of way.
The actual main action of the story happens during training of the main character Johnny Rico. First in High School, then during his Boot Camp and specialty school and finally during Officer Candidate School. It is in the discussions in class that Heinlein lays out his primary thesis on society. The breakdown of time spent training to action sequences in the book mirrors what you hear regarding actual combat. Hours of repetitive training and waiting around with just moments of actual combat.
Doing military service myself and having gone through boot and an officer school I could relate to some of the feelings expressed. The feeling of camaraderie developed with those you serve, especially those you have gone to war with, was quite familiar. Robert A. Heinlein’s concept that you need to be willing to look beyond yourself to the greater good and be willing to make, potentially, the ultimate sacrifice to support the greater good and protect everyone’s rights is noble and alluring.
I do, however, find flaw and disagreement with a number of Robert A. Heinlein‘s assertions. His stance on public, corporal punishment goes to far. I am not against the death penalty in all cases but do believe it should be limited. Additionally, public flogging and caining are barbaric and we can and have found better ways to deal with less severe infractions.
Finally, I don’t agree with limiting full citizenship only to those that have served. Education and training in critical thinking are key to developing an informed citizenry. Those that have argued against public funding of education, either because they wanted their children to have a religious education or they do not have children should take note. As Thomas Jefferson noted, an informed citizen is needed to have a functioning Republic. Also, I’ve known some idiot former service members. While I respect their service, some of them are not the ones I would want making the rules.
While Starship Troopers varies widely from the film and has some flaws in its message, it is still a classic of the golden age of science fiction. Well written and fast paced, it is a book worth reading and concepts, especially today, that should continue to be debated.