Book Review: Starship Troopers

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.

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21 thoughts on “Book Review: Starship Troopers”

  1. I was actually gonna suggest that you do a review on this; I read it a few months back. And yes, the suits are AWESOME!
    The society that the author suggests would work if you had a society of intelligent individuals, but unfortunately, this world is riddled with idiots.

    1. I read your mind. ;)

      The society that the author suggests would work if you had a society of intelligent individuals, but unfortunately, this world is riddled with idiots.

      That was partly my thought as well; I think Heinlein skirted some of the more realistic reactions to such a system, and I’m not sure it would be implemented as easily as he suggested.

  2. If you get a suit for Christmas, let me know where you got it because I would totally get one for my brother, and then keep it for myself. :)

    It would definitely be interesting to see a real-world government like Heinlein’s. I think that it would work as well as any other human system. My only objection would be that it would either significantly increase the number of women in military, or return past governments which were officially run by the men. Not that that’s bad necessarily for it to return to that.

    1. Well, then it comes down to belief: Do you believe that it’s wrong for women to be in the military? Not asking for an answer, just, how wrong is it really?

      1. Brian, when I first read the book I was wildly against women being in the military, my thoughts have changed since then. I think it would depend on the reason the women is the military, and what responsibilities she has outside the military.

  3. Very good question about women being in the military. I actually considered it for myself. I specifically wanted to join the Marines. I have an aunt who had a career in the Army, and so did her husband. When I first found the policy that Israel had, about women and men both being guided into the military, I thought it was great. Then I read some of Vision Forum’s articles on women in the military, and especially when they pointed out that the mindset of a good portion of the men on the Titanic was “women and children first,” because they understood women were the weaker vessel, and not in any negative sense of course- in a way that meant they deserved protection. He asked how we could expect this mindset to govern the way men would respond if the Titanic happened today, if these same men are being protected by women in the military. Then I read when Voddie Baucham pointed out that in Nehemiah, the men were told to fight for their city, their wives and their children, not their husbands! That drove the point home to me. I just wanted to add this thought to the conversation, because I don’t know a lot about it, but those verses made sense to me. Like Lady Amy said- it would depend on the reason the women is the military, and what responsibilities she has outside the military. I remember a readers Digest cover, of a woman opening her mother’s Day cards, dressed in her camo with her helmet on, in Iraq. Her children were at home, sending her cards. We also heard something about the military attempting to enlist young single mothers. If I heard this right it seems that this idea would leave the children at a disadvantage, and their mother. This is the sort of responsibility that should keep a woman out of the military. And yet, if the military is ever viewed as only another career option then women might protest that they can be a lawyer with children, why not a Lt. with children. I also remember a Wall Street journal article about husbands and wives who were in the military together, and how hard it was to keep the wives focused on their work on this base while miles away their husband was in harms way, and the same with the husbands. Just last night my Mother, Dad, and I were discussing this, in the context of Israel. I used to read a blog by a Jewish mother of two sons, both in the military. They were Orthodox, and her son requested a transfer to another unit when they tried to introduce women. Along with the theological question of whether women should protect men, we know have the question of how do we keep the usually slightly weaker women from getting hurt, and then people have raised the question of what to do when the “I should protect her” idea is alive in a man’s mind and so he is constantly watching out for her. Would that put them all in more danger? It is certainly a good question. Thank you for letting me tell my thoughts. I love reading this blog because of all the good theological conversation between the readers.

    1. Excellent thoughts, Faith!

      Speaking for myself, I’m not convinced that having women serve alongside men in the military is a good (or biblical) idea. Does it depend on what positions they hold? Maybe. I’m still studying this question myself, so I’m not going to offer any concrete answer – and I doubt I’d be able to within the confines of the comment section.

      But I enjoy the discussion all the same. :)

      1. Thank you again. I think possibly my thoughts on it could not have changed more wildly in just a few years. A change in the right direction is always good though!

  4. I love your review of this. For some reason, it made me very happy that you liked it. :-) For another taste of a “Heinleinian” utopia, check out his very first novel, which wasn’t published until after he died, For Us, the Living. He presents an interesting economic model in this one.

  5. My dad picked up a copy at a book outlet store a few years ago and left it at my house, so I picked it up. It’s one of the ultimate Guy Books, but mixes in some interesting political points. Good stuff, and a stellar review as always!

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