I’m not sure whether I’m more surprised that I actually read Starship Troopers, or that I really enjoyed it! I’ve been trying to read more sci-fi this year, that’s true, but it isn’t one of those contained within my 12 Books In 2021 Challenge (unlike Dune and Hyperion, etc).
Plot summary for 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 one of Robert A. Heinlein’s most controversial bestsellers, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest boot camp in the Universe—and into battle with the Terran Mobile Infantry against mankind’s most alarming enemy.
Star Rating for Starship Troopers: * * * * (four stars)
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Starship Troopers film, but I remember enough of it to know that the book is nothing like it! The novel focuses mainly on the protagonist’s training and rise up through the ranks of the military – not much of the book is actually spent fighting the Bugs.
That’s not to say it’s boring though; far from it. I really enjoyed following ‘Johnnie’ and his buddies come to terms with their enrollment, life and eventual career. For a book that inspired an action/sci-fi movie, there’s not actually that much action. I wouldn’t really say it’s character driven either, however; even the main character is a sort of drifter. Starship Troopers is a story and there is a plot, but it’s also a discussion about why people sign up to the military and why they stay there.
Sexism, Racism and Ableism (or the lack thereof)
1950s science fiction written by white men has a bit of a reputation. Fairly early on in my reading of Starship Troopers, I read the following:
When a female pilot handles a ship, there is nothing comfortable about it; you’re going to have bruises everywhere you’re strapped.
I braced myself for an internal eye roll and turned the page, and imagine my surprise when I turned the page and continued the paragraph:
Yes, yes, I know they make better pilots than men do; their reactions are faster and they can tolerate more gee. They can get in faster, get out faster, and thereby improve everybody’s chances, yours as well as theirs.
It’s not the only reference to women making the best pilots either. Honestly, the whole book is a pleasantly refreshing change to the rest of the genre. Women are lauded as excellent pilots (and aside from the above references to bruising, they’re never criticised either – no references to poor navigation, or spatial awareness, or anything), disabled people are able to function perfectly well, both in the military and out, and the main character is called Juan Rico. Not bad for white male sci-fi from the 1950s.
The ‘messages’ of Starship Troopers
There is a very pro-military vibe running through the book, and it prompted me to go and look up Robert A. Heinlein. Lo and behold, he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. For clarity, there isn’t a pro-war message – he never comes out in favour of aggression, violence or war. However, he does discuss at length the benefits of joining up, and how parents get over their regret when their children join up, and the benefits of placing your body between the enemy and your loved ones… whilst also clearly stating it is only for those who want to be there.
That said, it isn’t written with a sledgehammer in that respect. Starship Troopers doesn’t feel like a propaganda piece; it’s just really interesting.
Robert Heinlein himself
Robert A. Heinlein seems like a really interesting man, as I learned whilst I was checking his military background. Apparently he is generally lauded as:
a) one of the first people to strive for scientific accuracy in his sci-fi (he was an aeronautical engineer; and
b) an author who consistently used his writing to educate his readers about the value of racial equality and the importance of racial tolerance
Intimidating? Not really.
The scientific accuracy comment above would have intimidated me had I read that before picking up Starship Troopers, but it’s not a ‘hard’ book at all. Even the scientific aspects are easy to follow and well-explained. The only part where I struggled was during the final battle with the Bugs, and that was in relation to the military maneuvers and quadrants. I just couldn’t keep straight who was meant to be where!
In short, Starship Troopers is a great introduction to older, ‘proper’ sci-fi. The author is pro-women, pro-racial equality and anti-ableism to an extent that is notable throughout the book. The plot isn’t exactly action packed, but is more than enough to keep the reader interested, and it’s written with an informal, almost chatty, tone that meant the pages just flew by.
I’ve already added two of his other books, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, to my wishlist and I am so excited to read more from this surprisingly tolerant and engaging author.
Read another (more in-depth and considered!) review of Starship Troopers at Muse With Me.