The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war…
In Starship Troopers, Jaun “Johnnie” Rico signs up with the Federal Service and struggles through the toughest bootcamp in the Universe, determined to make it as a cap trooper with the Terran Mobile Infantry. But the hardest part is yet to come – when he’s thrown into battle against an enemy unlike anything mankind has faced before.
Looking for futuristic weaponry, space soldiers, and nasty aliens? This is the book for you. Looking for a mental workout to get the old lemon throbbing? This is also the book for you. Or to put it another way: are you a sci-fi enthusiast with a taste for politics and moral philosophy? Read Starship Troopers. It has both in equal measure.
Much has been made of Heinlein’s “elegantly drawn battle scenes,” but for my money, the most exciting scenes take place in the classroom. The discussions there are just as riveting as anything that happens in combat, if not more so. The story is swiftly paced and gripping, but it’s clear from the get-go that Heinlein is less concerned with entertaining us than he is with making us stop and think.
He succeeds. Wildly.
The society of the future, as imagined here, is one where full citizenship – and most importantly, the right to vote – can only gained through military service. Signing up isn’t mandatory, and those who won’t (or can’t) serve are free to pursue their lives as they see fit. But they aren’t allowed to meddle in politics. Only those who have paid the price for liberty are allowed to wield the power it begets, for they alone know its great and terrible value.
That is Heinlein’s contention anyway. His arguments are cogent and understandable; whether I agree with them is another matter altogether. Nor am I convinced that his militaristic society would actually work. Like most utopias, it seems feasible within the confines of the novel – I just doubt it would play out the same way in real life.
Heinlein also explores what it means to be a soldier: a free man who has sacrificed his own freedom to preserve the freedom of others. We see the fear, the pain, the brotherhood, the pride. We see the difference between true leaders and men who merely have higher rank. One of Heinlein’s central assertions is that authority and responsibility must be appropriately balanced, yin-yang style – or else. In the words of Robert E. Lee: “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.”
The Bugs themselves are symbolic of the communist political structure which was on the rise during the Cold War. Interestingly enough, one of the characters points out the the Bugs’ “communism” only works because the species is biologically adapted to it.
The Bugs are not like us. The Pseudo-Arachnids aren’t even like spiders. They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive. (p. 142)
Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commisars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. (pp. 161)
Heinlein’s contempt for communism is well-known (and well-warranted). As he wrote in 1949: “Let me go on record that I regard communism as expressed by the U.S.S.R. and its friends here and elsewhere as a grisly horror, a tyranny maintained by force and terror, utterly subversive of human liberty, freedom of thought, and dignity. I regard it as Red fascism, distinguishable from black and brown fascism by differences of no importance to me nor to its victims.”
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this novel has to offer, and if you’re up for an intellectual wrestling match, I’d encourage you to pick it up for yourself. I’ll simply make one more observation: the trooper suits are awesome.
A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I. A suit is not a ship but it can fly, a little – on the other hand neither spaceships nor atmosphere craft can fight against a man in a suit except by saturation bombing of the area he’s in (like burning down a house to get one flea!). Contrariwise we can do many things that no ship – air, submersible, or space – can do.
There are a dozen different ways of delivering destruction in impersonal wholesale, via ships and missiles of one sort or another, catastrophes so widespread, so unselective, that the war is over because that planet or nation has ceased to exist. What we do is entirely different. We make war as personal as a punch in the nose. We can be selective, applying precisely the required amount of pressure at the specified point as a designated time – we’ve never been told to go down and kill or capture all left-handed redheads in a particular area, but if the tell us to, we can. We will.
Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons. But the suits are considerably stronger than a gorilla. If an M.I. in a suit swapped hugs with a gorilla, the gorilla would be dead, crushed; the M.I. and the suit wouldn’t be mussed. (pp. 104-105)
I want one of those things for Christmas.