Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Of the "Big Three" of mid-late 20th century science fiction (Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein), I'm least familiar with Heinlein. I love Clarke most for his deep, cosmic vision and Asimov second for his cleverness. I read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land in high school and liked it (at least the hippie stuff about peace, love, and grokking). But until now, that was it for me and Heinlein. At some point I heard that Heinlein put his right-wing politics into his books, which, combined with the fact that most of his books didn't sound as interesting, kept me away from him for decades. Lately I've come to suspect that I'm missing a big chunk of the history of science fiction. Since I heard Starship Troopers was controversial and not at all related to the movie, not to mention a big inspiration for contemporary military science fiction, I thought I'd give it a shot.

For military SF, there's not much actual fighting (those super solider suits are cool, though). I found the boot camp part of the book interesting as character development and world-building, but toward the end there was a 20-30 page (but seemingly interminable) section on the minutiae of rank titles and command structures. I suppose this is intended to help make sense of later scenes, but could have been handled in a way that didn't make me want to fall asleep and drool on the book. Maybe huge fans of military SF or real life career military people find that sort of thing interesting. I don't.

The Philosophy Report

What I did find interesting were the classroom scenes (for a History and Moral Philosophy course required of all school children). Here's where Heinlein gets into trouble with a lot of people. Does he mean it? Is he serious? Is he too heavy-handed? Is he supporting the troops by illustrating the dignity of military service? Is he a total fascist, militaristic bastard?

To focus these questions a little bit, it helps to look at one mention of Plato's Republic, which a teacher refers to as advocating "ant-like communism." Of course, the Republic itself is subject to a lot of interpretations. One common interpretation is that Plato is advocating a totalitarian state in which shadowy philosopher-kings control all aspects of people's lives (I think Plato is probably being ironic or maybe writing the ancient Greek version of dystopian science fiction, but that's another matter). But if Plato is a totalitarian, is the society of Starship Troopers far behind? The only people who can vote are military veterans, who we are told demonstrate their superior moral quality through their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. That sounds a lot like Plato's philosopher-kings, who are supposed to undergo decades of intellectual, military, and moral training while putting society's interests ahead of their own -- they return to the Cave to govern after all!

So, are Plato and Heinlein all that different? Is either author giving a serious political proposal? For Plato, there's plenty of reason for doubt (Socrates tries to found a "simple city" early on in the Republic, the text could really be about individual virtue, etc.). With Heinlein, one has to wonder whether a self-proclaimed libertarian could also be a totalitarian. Maybe you could be a libertarian while advocating for a strong national defense (like many US Republicans and other conservatives today, I suppose). Maybe Heinlein just wasn't all that consistent in his political philosophy (this was the same guy that came up with the very hippie idea of grokking, after all). Or maybe it really was a bit of ironic fun, poking fun at militarism. Or maybe Heinlein was just a science fiction writer pushing an idea to its logical extreme.

For making the reader wonder about all this, I tip my hat to Heinlein (it also slightly removes the bad taste in my mouth left by the hyper-militarism). If this had come packaged with a better plot (including more on the aliens and larger human society) and a little more philosophical finesse, it could have been great. As it is, I'm afraid Heinlein will remain #3 in my Big Three ranking.

Rating: 70/100

(See my original Goodreads review).


  1. I'd always wondered what the book was like. I knew the movie was nothing like it, but beyond that, I didn't know much. As it stands, I could do without 20-30 pages of military rank descriptions. Thanks!

    1. There are a few similarities with the movie (for example, there are some classroom scenes in the movie, too). The book did have its merits, but it was mostly a case of wondering why this is considered to be such a classic, especially compared to the far more interesting Stranger in a Strange Land.