Thursday, October 25, 2007

Why Civilization on Earth in Starship Troopers is Doomed to Fall and Why I Don't Care

My single biggest complaint in science fiction is poor work on the author's part at representing a civilization.

Ideally sociological science fiction should start with a "What if there was a society that did this?", then let the author prop it up if necessary to justify it, and then finally consider the implications of those structures and how they would change the world. Starship Troopers does this. The Dispossessed (which is coming up in a few weeks) does this twice.

A lot of books don't. Almost always in those cases the author creates a utopian society that is usually a thinly disguised puppet for their own political views (you can typically tell because of the scornful ways that the characters talk about how stupid real-world society is for not being them; "Can you believe that at the end of the twentieth century they actually made paper from trees? I'm glad we now execute people for daring such things!"). Little consideration is paid to the complications of such a change and the day to day life of the main characters is rarely significantly different from ours except for the fact that they comment on how great they are from time to time.

In Starship Troopers Heinlein went through a lot of trouble to justify his society and why it existed. His what if question started from "What if a society required effort from its members to allow participation in government?" and he works hard to justify its existence. Since citizenship only conveys a vote and the ability to hold public office Heinlein's idea is that it makes participation more valuable.

It's a nice idea that appeals the a sense of civic justice. And like so many other things that do it would lead to tyranny in real life.

It would work as long as the government acts in a beneficial way for everyone, but history shows that brief shining examples quickly fall into ruin. The only voter base that the government has to appeal to are those citizens and people pursuing citizenship. Heinlein's society promises open access to citizenship but barriers can be erected easily and the people would have little recourse. Even a bad government that is opposed by all of the non-citizens could not be overturned quickly as it would take two years of complete disruption of their lives before they could do anything about it. It's no good protesting that cruel war against the bugs who were just trying to communicate by writing messages on asteroids and dropping them on major cities to read when you have no voice in government.

The society in Starship Troopers continues to work mainly because of benevolence but its a recent change. The classes that Rico sits through in school are propaganda and indoctrination to this system and would be the main reason why it hasn't collapsed into corruption yet. That's also the reason why it doesn't bother me in Starship Troopers as much as others do. Heinlein's system is different and while the teacher says its the greatest ever its also transparent propaganda. So I don't care that they're functioning over the course of the book mainly since I can see it collapsing soon after the war is over.