Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Review - Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers
by Robert Heinlein
1960 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

A good way to start a fight when dealing with nerds is to mention how much you either love or hate Starship Troopers. The book tends to inspire a lot of strong emotions in people and that perhaps is the strongest recommendation I could make for reading it. Heinlein had two very good ideas that he put into one book and while I don't think that either of them would have raised eyebrows separately putting them together made people with poor reading comprehension skills angry.

The first idea and simplest is the story of a future military. Johnny Rico is a kid who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life so he joins the mobile infantry, a branch of Earth's military that has men in power armor drop from low orbit to fight their battles. The war is going badly and Rico rapidly rises in the ranks as people around him die. Heinlein paints an interesting picture of military life which follows the old adage of weeks of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. It still has quite a bit of adventure novel glossing but there's an undercurrent

The second idea is that of a society that requires some form of civil service before a person can vote or hold public office. Someone has to work for the government for two years before becoming a citizen which in the book holds only those two benefits over not being a citizen. The service just has to be some kind of government work, it is not necessarily military service. Large chunks of this book are some long winded, poorly written philosophical justifications for this system.

Perhaps the fact that those sections are so dry that Starship Troopers has been used quite a bit over the years to claim Heinlein was a fascist. I suspect people's eyes blur over when the book flashes back to Rico's civics classes and skip ahead to the good parts. The most common misunderstanding is that the civil service has to be military. In the book one of Rico's classmates does his service as scientific research but it also mentions things like construction and janitorial service. The civil service cannot reject anyone who wants to become a citizen and Heinlein makes a specific example of a blind paraplegic being able to count caterpillar fuzz for environmental surveys.

Also in Starship Troopers the difference between a citizen and a non-citizen is minimal but people latch on to the term "citizen". It's closer to the difference between citizens and non-citizens in Athens at the height of Greek civilization than citizens and non-citizens in modern societies. Rico's parents, for example, are not citizens but they are wealthy and powerful. Non-citizens appear to greatly outnumber the citizens on Earth without suffering anything other than not being able to vote.

Starship Troopers does raise questions of what obligation does an individual have to society and the value of individual participation in the government and that's exactly what science fiction should be. Even if you disagree with the concepts presented in the book (and I certainly do since such a society would be dependent on the continued benevolence of the government) it's worth thinking about.

Getting past the philosophy of Starship Troopers the book is the most influential work of military science fiction you're going to find. Just about everyone who's written military SF since owes a debt to Heinlein whether as a response to the ideas raised or an extension of them. I'm not fond of the prose or the clunky philosophy lessons but Starship Troopers is a must read for science fiction fans if only so you can see where so many of the concepts that are taken for granted today come from.