Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers"

Although I was root-root-rooting throughout the first chapter, subsequent reading revealed that Starship Troopers was exactly what everyone said it was: an extensive polemic on the virtues of violence and pain.

There I go, being polemical.

I paused after a few chapters of outwardly rough-edged paternal-type fellows who were secretly sweethearts telling Johnnie Rico the what's-up of the world and wondered if there was any reason Heinlein had written this story in the science fiction genre--other than that a futural setting might belay any initial skepticism readers might feel toward his argument. It's not that his setting wasn't interesting; for what little treatment he gives it, Heinlein's universe is as sophisticated as any I've read in recent memory. But where the book truly shines speculatively is in its speculative politics: namely, a world wherein only  veterans are fully enfranchised citizens.

This corresponds with what seems to me like the simple observation that bodies politic are founded on violence. So, there's a certain sense of justice to Heinlein's conception of social virtue: if you want to be a full part of a body politic of some kind, you ought to be willing to fight for it.

However, it's also an incredibly dangerous belief. Heinlein's Terran Federation is a pretty swell place; even if you're not a soldier and can't vote, you can still expect to live freely and, by the sweat of your brow, prosper. But any world in which violence accords privilege can obviously descend into real tyranny: the outer shells of society held in check by the violence of its inner circles, enforcing shades of belonging within the community.

Suffice to say this idea, whether or not I agree with it, gives me a pretty sweet idea for a story (for whenever I'm in the mood to riff off of Heinlein): a world where only two political castes exist, the citizen-soldier and the slave. One need only undertake to commit violence to become a citizen. In this manner, the world would presume two fundamental conflicts: the domestic dispute or the citizen's duel, and the interpolity battle. Of course, any conflict at all in this world-schema is immediately a battle between citizens; slavish are those who will not fight. I can also imagine--in the tradition of Heinlein--some pesky, resident philosophers--representing both castes, I expect.

How very Greek.

Anyway, I really did like those battle scenes. Grenades! H-bombs! Heavy flamers! Wazoo! And, even though I wished there was more of that stuff, it still feels good to read a book that makes you think.



  1. Your copy of the book has a much better cover than mine! (My cover art doesn't even acknowledge the skin tone of the Filipino main character. Pretty sad, if you ask me.)

    Even if you were unqualified to commit violence (by reason of handicap, lack of fitness, pacific mental state &c), the willingness to complete two years at whatever suitably arduous non-combat task the Military found for you was sufficient for enfranchisement in the book. Consider that were you in the infantry and never fired your weapon in combat by virtue of there having been two years of peace, at the end of that service you would still be entitled to voting privileges.

    As I saw it, that reinforced the point that a Citizen should be willing (even if not able) to sacrifice himself for a group, as opposed to being especially willing to commit violence. All that training is there to control violence and make it useful to society, not to encourage it.

    The fact that (as you emphasize) it's a lot more interesting to read about a wartime infantryman killing aliens, meeting sexy pilots, and finding a career while overcoming his daddy issues than to read about a peacetime soldier or diplomat alternatively killing potato peels or negotiating trade agreements. Hence all that violence against conveniently implacable foes.

    That's there's no civilian population amongst the Enemy to worry about both streamlines the plot and sidesteps a contemplation of that aspect of the morality of violence. That's a weakness of the book (which would probably have been addressed had it been completed in 1970 instead of 1960).

    But! Your idea for the citizen-soldier & slave society is interesting. Especially since, from an anthropological perspective, that's what did (does) happen while those philosophers work out Civilization. Just substitute "noble" for "citizen".

  2. That was a little long, but it's only 300 words to the original post's 430, so I remain within the bounds of comment etiquette.

    Bonus Question: How the heck did you get a blogroll? I can't find that gadget anywhere, and that's the last blog feature I can think to want.

  3. Yeah, bugs are a really convenient enemy. In a lot of ways, "Old Man's War" was just a more interesting version on Starship Troopers; but then, Old Man's War lacked the interesting philosophical musings--which I don't fault Heinlein for. I think it's a pretty fair way to set up a nation-state or whathaveyou; except, in such a polity, I would not be a citizen.

    Blogroll: not actually a blogroll. There's some kind of blog applet you can add; I just populated it and re-titled it. Don't use "list."