Being that Remembrance/Armistice day brings about a lot of mixed feelings for me, none of which are particularly relevant to this blog, I thought I would use today to discuss the great grandfather of all military science fiction novels, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
As a first principle, I would submit that Starship Troopers is only a novel in the loosest sense of the word. Rather, Starship Troopers is little more than a manifesto employing equal measures of fiction and allegory. There are at most a dozen chapters in Starship Troopers offering anything in the way of an actual plot. So much of the novel is devoted to back story, world building, and outright exposition – to the extent that Heinlein included a chart depicting the command structure of the mobile infantry unit to which the novel’s narrator, Juan Rico, is attached – that I imagine most modern publishers wouldn’t let the book get out of the slush pile. Were the novel pitched today it would likely find a home as the source material for a table top war game.
Let us then enumerate what Starship Troopers does well, other than passing off exposition as narrative – much to the chagrin of countless aspiring writers. First and foremost, the novel is an exercise in voice. Juan Rico is a compelling narrator; he has to be to keep the reader’s attention through the various and sundry details of the Terran Federation and its government. Despite guiding readers through a world where franchise rights are dependent upon potentially dangerous service to the state, Rico remains an approachable character. His naivety with respect to the precarious nature of a civil state mirrors the reader’s own sense of alienation as they attempt to plumb Heinlein’s vision of the future. Despite Rico’s amiable nature, he is also wholly complicit in Heinlein’s condemnation of mid-20th century America, and by extension the contemporary nation state.
This brings us to the world of Starship Troopers. Heinlein’s vision of the future is like a master class in applied political science. Even though the book is bloated with exposition, it’s executed with sufficient adroit as to be completely efficient and wholly intuitive. Indeed, it is no small accomplishment to simultaneously take a character from nascent adulthood to “manhood” proper while also building a fully realized world in a mere 263 pages. So there’s no doubting the efficiency of Heinlein’s writing.
Thus do we come to the novel’s tendency to evoke strong reactions with respect to its politics. Regardless of if an individual reader agrees or disagrees with the novel’s core conceit, Starship Troopers is nothing but forthright in its nature as a thought experiment. Heinlein never attempts to make the reader an accomplice in his political ramblings. Through Rico, he presents his criticism of liberal democracies and moves on with a recommendation for changing things, nothing more. Compare this to John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War – a novel richer in depth, narrative, and subtext – which quite cleverly leads the reader to empathize with the military establishment before turning heel and pointing out the short comings of said institution. Heinlein might be evangelizing, but he’s not offering any sort of trickery. The onus is upon the reader to exercise their free will, another fundamental tenant of Heinlein’s Terran Federation, and either accept or reject the world as presented.
Is Starship Troopers worth reading? Certainly. It uses fiction to present a criticism of the established social order. Isn’t that the goal we set for all novelists? Is Starship Troopers a good novel? Not so much. It’s a great first person narrative that contents itself with building a very detailed world of which the protagonist inhabits very little. Instead, Starship Troopers is best seen as an address to the reader. It is Heinlein’s open ended invitation to join him in ushering in a social change. Personally, I reject that change and the politics that go with it – though sixteen year-old Adam was a little more receptive therein. However, I have nothing but respect for the way in which Mr. Heinlein made his argument, and his ability, even now, to make me reflect on my own world view.