Saturday, December 5, 2015

Starship Troopers Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Ace
Genre: Philosophical Science Fiction
Series: Standalone
Pages: 263

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Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a long shot from the popular debacle of a film that greeted audiences in 1997.  Where that film was heaping piles of blood and guts everywhere, it came up short on finding thoughtful things to say.  Normally I wouldn’t care about that in an action movie, but when your source material is a Sci-Fi classic that’s half philosophical treatise, I’ve got to wonder why call the movie Starship Troopers?

As far as the book’s concerned, this is a story about Juan “Johnnie” Rico, a young man who decides to enlist in the army, much to the chagrin of his parents. As Rico goes through an intense boot-camp, he prepares to fight an invading alien species only referred to as “the bugs.”

The bugs are really secondary to the story. Instead Heinlein focuses on espousing his philosophical ideas on the reader through the various lectures and lessons Rico learns during his training, or during his past in his Morality Class with Mr. Dubois.  The origins of this novel begin with Heinlein wishing to clarify his personal views after he found himself under attack by the Sci-Fi community ,and the public at large, after he began advocating for nuclear testing programs.

Starship Troopers really comes off as a utopian society type of book, where the government is structured around ideas that Heinlein thinks would be best for governing a society.  In this future version of Earth, Democracy is still the prevalent form of government but there are some modifications. Only people – called citizens – are allowed to vote.   In order to become a citizen a person must have completed service to the Federal government.  This usually ends up being military service that can last a minimum of two years, but if need be, it can last a lifetime. The vast majority of the population usually chooses not to become citizens, by doing this they are still guaranteed their basic personal freedoms, but they must submit to the laws they have no say in making.

I don’t care for apathy in political decision making, but at the same time I can’t say Heinlein’s idea would fix it.  The author is humble in this regard, as he states all governing systems will eventually fall, and he even alludes to crime and other cracks in this future system he’s created.  There doesn’t seem be too much depth to the challenging of the ideas of this future system either.

Heinlein’s system advocates for using corporal punishment to keep detractors in line. Many punishments that are distributed are oftentimes harsh and are not limited to whipping and hangings. Corporal punishments effectiveness has been scientifically studied and has been found not to increase discipline, and it in fact can lead to a number of mental issues later in life. In this regard I see Heinlein going the wrong way about trying to solve a common problem with many, which is lack of discipline. I for one firmly believe discipline needs to be taught to people not beaten into them, after all the word originates from a Latin word meaning “to teach” not “to beat.”

Above all, I can’t help but get the feeling that Heinlein really wants to incorporate a “military knows best” (aka a MacArthurism) type of doctrine on to a political democracy. In times of war I would more often than not advocate for the military knowing best, but politics – and life in general – goes far beyond what the military knows, and that type of mentality won’t work in every situation.
There are a lot of ideas I don’t agree with in this novel, but I still enjoyed reading it.  I really appreciate the broad spectrum of political questions asked by the author:

What is freedom?

What’s worth the cost of freedom?

Is there a perfect political system?

Who should make the decisions in government?

What constitutes a morally just government?

There are plenty more but it’s this aspect I liked best.

As for the plot, there are powered suits and bug battles, but those parts of the story are few and far between. The book is no where near the gorefest that the movie was. A lot of the plot feels rushed in order to make time for more “idea sharing.” I liked Rico; I liked where he ended up at the end; and I liked that he was able to learn something. There was just an emotional disconnect with all the characters.  Should’ve been emotional scenes had me feeling nothing, and that never bodes well for a plot.

Rico begins to learn how important personal responsibility and duty is, and that is the key to his maturation as an adult and the growth of the story.  In a sense if there’s one idea I feel the author really wanted to get across it was that the individual should place the needs of the community before one’s self. That’s an idea I think a lot of people would like to see more of.

Score: 7.6

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