Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

21 Oct 2011

(Novel) Starship Troopers by: Robert Heinlein

(Reaction) What Bugs? by: Jose Angelo Singson

I watched the movie Starship Troopers first before I read the actual novel it (the film) was supposedly based on. I was surprised by four things: 1. the book is nothing at all like the film, but then again that is hardly shocking. 2. the book is nothing at all like a novel in that it reads more like a political essay 4. there is hardly any real action in the novel, most of it is a first person narrative of the main character's experiences as a soldier and descriptions of the technological advancements they use to wage war 3. the book is controversial for many reasons, chief among them is that it supports fascism, militarism and is written as propaganda material.

After having read the book one does come up with the impression that many of these allegations could be true. I cannot however say that I disagreed with many of the author's thoughts regarding the moral and philosophical aspects of citizenship, the right to vote (suffrage), civic duties, the necessities (largely debatable of course) of war and capital punishment, and the nature of juvenile delinquency or that his arguments were baseless generalizations of a cynical, pathological people-hater.

Starship Troopers is a rara avis of a novel. There are several pages worth of narrative material that do not serve to further the plot in any manner and serves no other discernable use but to argue or rather, to win the reader over to the author's viewpoints concerning citizenship, suffrage, etc... This isn't to say that it's a bad read or didactic to the point of being preachy but it will disappoint you if, say, you had set your mind to reading a sci-fi adventure novel or a space opera.

The novel is narrated by Juan Rico, a Filipino, [he mentions Ramon Magsaysay and that his native tongue is Tagalog on pages 153 and 154 respectively (\m/ (^o^) \m/)] born to a wealthy family who volunteers for Federal (Military) Service upon graduating from highschool and becomes a career soldier. Upon signing up he finds that, because of his mediocre academic perfomance in school but exemplary performance as an athlete he is fit for the Mobile Infantry, the equivalent of the Marines in the Starship Troopers universe. Mobile Infantry or M.I. as it is referred to in the novels is also the lowest strata of military service. People who enlist as M.I. are viewed as little more than cannon fodder.

Juan Rico goes through basic training/boot camp and describes the whole matter in great detail. Surprisingly, the boot camp of tomorrow has changed little from the boot camp of today. There are however some interesting additions to their training like hypno-suggestive indoctrination and power armor combat but as a whole it featured a lot of the same old training regimen unchanged since the days of Alexander the Great: jogging/marching, calisthenics, hand to hand combat and some live-firing exercises. There really wasn't a lot of details about the intergalactic war with the aliens, but Heinlein goes into great detail about Juan rico's career development from grunt to officer.

The events in the novel are ordered oddly. They began with an exciting attack on the homeworld of a humanoid alien race they've called unflatteringly The Skinnies then moving into Juan Rico's recounting of his experiences of signing up for M.I. In fact, the Skinnies and the Bugs, the other hostile alien race the humans are fighting against, are mentioned so rarely in the novel that one does get the feeling that the interstellar war is only a stage setting for Rico's experiences.

If you sift through the flashbacks and the brief bursts of fighting in the book what you get is a lot of philosophical musings about society and man's role in it. All in all, this seems to be the crux of the author and he makes, what I feel to be, several pokes at what or rather how things should be run in today's society: Suffrage ought to be earned first through civil service but not necessarily military service.

Non-citizens (capitalists, legislators, etc.) can and are able enjoy all other rights and privileges of life except, the right to vote. Military personnel cannot vote while on active duty, but may do so upon retirement. Mr. Heinlein doesn't really explain his thoughts on the matter though... The Federal Service is 95% non-military/non-combat oriented, which is to say that the rest of the Federal Service is an immense bureaucratic machine. A small percentage of applicants go into its military branches, and an even smaller percentage engages in actual combat. One can quit anytime during his/her service except if they are in active combat (you are then labeled as a deserter and there are consequences to this). No penalties will be given for quitting. Quitting however means being denied the right to become a citizen pretty much permanently. The author's biggest beef though is this: ultimately, pacifists have no real place in society. War is the equalizer of all societies. War is necessary (per the author) and inevitable because it is the distillate of the unappeasable instinct for survival inherent in all human beings. The author, via the lead character goes as far as to say ...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 freedoms...

The author, Robert A. Heinlein, has been accused of glorifying the military and for propagating militaristic/fascist/dictatorial ideals through this particular novel. Here's my take on the matter: Glorify the military? Yes, and understandably so. The author himself has a military background and comes from a family of career soldiers. Naturally he is inclined to hold the military in high regard. The author had a soft spot for the Infantry because he believes this particular branch to be of utmost importance during actual war (at least at the time of his writing Starship Troopers). As for supporting militaristic ideals I am inclined to disagree. In the novel he states: "...in peacetime most veterans come from non-combat auxiliary services..." The word veteran mind you is used a bit loosely. It does not mean someone has to have gone through military service.

As for being a fascist supporter I find no hard evidence there either. There is no central authority figure in the novel that people defer to. Voting is carried out and there seems to be a free market economy. The Terran Federation is a republic. There is democratic form of government. The only significant difference is that the right to vote is a privilege earned by service and not a right automatically awarded to individuals. I found myself agreeing with this concept most as I've long been a supporter of meritocracies. I have long held the belief that voting should not be an arbitrary right but something that is earned. I speak for myself here but I believe that the only folks that ought to be working are those that pay their taxes and have kept a clean civil record, but enough of my right-wing spouting...

Ironically the author states that among those who cannot vote are actively enlisted military personel. Robert Heinlein explains this ban on voting by saying...the idiots might vote not to make a drop... meaning to say that the enlisted personel might vote not to be parachuted into combat zones for missions. This seems to be contradictory to his premise of earning the right to vote by active civil service and sounds like an utter lack of trust in a human being's capacity for selfless, noble action. Besides, during combat voting not to be in combat is not a moot point. The platoon cannot disobey orders during combat as there are corresponding punishments to be meted out for such an action.

Practically everything in the novel is rooted in something that Heinlein calls a scientific theory of morals. I'm not terribly sure what it is but by inference it seems to refer to societal standards of moral norms supported by mathematical proofs and statistical analyses in the Starship Trooper universe. How something of this sort can even be put together is beyond me and I'd hate to be the egghead crunching the numbers on this monstrosity. Although admittedly the prospect of moral norms in human social dynamics; being proven as a statistically predictable matter, is intriguing.

The author throws the readers this thought provoking question: is dying for nation, religion, or political ideology, moral? Per the author so long as it fosters the survival of the individual, it is. Meaning to say that the author believes that fighting for one's nation/defending his liberty is really an offshoot of the desire of the individual to survive rather than the fulfillment of the concept of patriotism. This, according to Robert Heinlein is the complex duty of a citizen of the Federation that a civilian does not understand nor act upon. I do not agree with this point because a nation is, at the very core of it all, nothing but an artificial social construct. Individuals have survived for millennia by being deserters and enemy collaborators. History shows us that wars have been fought because the basic liberty of an individual is to choose his own government and leader. Think about the French Revolution; it is a perfect example of a bunch of individuals choosing to go down another path of government to further the survival of the individual.

A nation, if you peel all the fluff away is really just another artificial social construct and so by definition again so is the concept of patriotism. The idea of patriotism is something that is taught rather than something inherent in a person. Once more, if you study the histories of various nations you will see that ultimately a person's conscience is his only judge. Mere survival is not moral but if you die for an idea it becomes moral and in this pluralistic age, who can say what these beliefs should be?

According to the author duty is carried more weight than rights and I agree with this idea at least to a certain degree. I have often gripped that folks often harp about rights and privileges and freedoms but forget about their responsibility to each other as fellow members of society. The quibble here though is that often someone else gets to define what an individual's duty is, whereas rights can be defined in stable, absolute terms. Heinlein argues in his novel that there is no such thing as juvenile delinquents. According to him, one who does not understand duty cannot be guilty of failing to follow the rules. Blame therefore falls to the parents and educators who have failed to instruct these young minds properly. Once more I disagree. Ignorance of the law excuses no one and this has been a core tenet of many a body of law. All in all crime in the novel is seen and treated as a matter of personal choice. The author also argues that if criminals understood their duty as they truly ought to, they would cease to be criminals. This is a tough pill to swallow. People have tried this throughout recorded history without much success...

For what it's worth Robert Heinlein did not really write a pure sci-fi book but rather a sci-fi book about military pride and that was well executed. At this time the novel was being written the cold war was well in stride and the Americans were lagging behind the Soviets in both the space race and the arms race. It is not surprising he worried so much that if the military loses the respect it deserves, an invasion may soon follow and this is a well recorded recurring lesson of history. The spoils of war always, always goes to the more aggressive. History after all is written by the victors.

Review:

I am hard pressed to say if I enjoyed the novel. The novel for the most part makes use of simple, straightforward language. Easy enough to understand. One does, however, get really bogged down by all the author's socio-political-philosophical...preachings. Not that they aren't interesting or devoid of merit but the sheer amount that was stuffed into the book was just staggering.

The book though does have its moments. Starship Troopers is also the first sci-fi novel to feature the concept of powered armor as a self-contained environment, infirmary, data center and tank. Robert Heinlein's description of power armor is fascinating and makes you want to douse Paul Veerhooven with fish innards for not having used such a cool concept in his movie spin off of S.T.

The other aspect of the novel that I found endearing was that it was also a growing up story. He chronicles Juan Rico from naive high-school senior to a seasoned veteran and a responsible contributing member of society. Rico seemingly comes to understand that leaving the service after the minimum requirement of two years in order to earn the right to become a citizen is not what citizenship is all about. He learns to appreciate the hard life of a soldier, internalizing the lessons on duty and obligation he had learned in school. Through his experiences he has surpassed the shallow trappings of a life of privilege. I remember a touching scene in the novel where Juan Rico meets his father by chance while still in active service. His father remarks that he has changed so much over the years and that he is very proud of his son.

Overall I would say that Starship Troopers is an interesting read. Very thought provoking and makes you question the values that our current society upholds. Those of among you however who are looking for a good sci-fi space adventure, keep looking. There's not much of that here. You want action read Dune or anything from the Honorverse.

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