Sunday, 18 April 2010

Why read Starship Troopers?

“What would I have left out? The Asimovs and Heinleins, certainly, since in completely different ways they did much to distract everyone from the idea that science fiction should be written well. (This is a personal view – the consensus of the SF world is against me.)
Christopher Priest, Forward to 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels

Starship Troopers is an undoubtedly right-wing in its politics and unashamedly militaristic in outlook but it is also one of the finest coming-of-age stories in SF, a narrative that follows Johnnie Rico’s rites of passage with the kind of detail and empathy that can be appreciated even by those readers to whom Heinlein’s politics and philosophy remain an anathema.”
Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison, 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels

“[Heinlein] forgot to insert a story.”
Anthony Boucher, founder of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Robert A Heinlein, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark, is recognised as one of the “Big Three” of Science Fiction in the Golden Age of SF. He was born in July 1907 in Missouri, educated at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and served in the US Navy from 1929, where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant. In 1934, Heinlein was discharged from the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis, whereupon he became heavily involved in politics, even unsuccessfully running for the California State Assembly in 1938.

Heinlein published his first SF story in a 1939 edition of Astounding Science-Fiction. His initial novels were aimed at the youth and young adult market; Starship Troopers marked his departure from this (and his publisher) into more adult-orientated works. His 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land was widely cited as an inspiration to the hippie movement of the ‘60s. The stories in his later life degenerated into polemics on government, sex and religion.

Heinlein won four Hugo Awards for his novels: Farmer in the Sky (1951), Double Star (1956), Starship Troopers (1959) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1967), as well as three Retro Hugos.

Heinlein died in 1988 at the age of 81, having published 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections during his life. You can see the full list at

Starship Troopers was written in the late ‘50s to the backdrop of America's success in the Second World War and stalemate in the Korean War. The Korean conflict is obliquely referenced several times in Starship Troopers, most pointedly with the claim that "no 'Department of Defence' ever won a war." Heinlein’s dissatisfaction with the inconclusive resolution in Korea coupled with his invaliding out of the armed services mirrors Rudyard Kipling’s similar romanticization of armed conflict despite (or because of) lack of firsthand experience. This comes out through many of the main characters; Johnny Rico in particular but also Colonel Dubois, his History and Moral Philosophy and Heinlein’s main mouthpiece. Apart from the occasional combat sequences (the opening chapter detailing a planetary raid being the main action, most other fighting is skimmed over in a line or two), the Moral Philosophy classes act as a soapbox for Heinlein’s political views and frustrations. In many respects, the book can be read as a series of cold war political essays linked by small items of narrative. It is true that there is virtually no plot and even less characterisation, but the few battle scenes are excitingly written. As a whole, the book is essentially Space Opera, with good-old humanity whopping the asses of the communist, sorry, insectoid aliens.

The controversy started before the book was even released. Up until this time Heinlein’s books were published by Scribner, but they refused to accept the work, forcing Heinlein to G. P. Putnam's Sons. Critics variously picked up on the right-wing politics (extreme even for the McCarthy era) and the abandonment of conventions such as character development. Despite all this, Starship Troopers was awarded the 1959 Hugo. Even Heinlein was surprised that it won, stating in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe: "I still can't see how that book got a Hugo".

It is said that Character plus Conflict equals Plot. Strangely, for a book that is ostensibly about war, there is actually very little conflict in it. Disagreement between the characters only exists briefly in the school days passages (and dismissed as youthful naivety) and once between Rico and a fellow NCO (which was resolved far too glibly). Likewise characters are two-dimensional and the plot thus fails to arrive. Despite the lack of plot there is still some narrative, and what exists is compelling. Edit out the speeches and Starship Troopers would work well as a conventional novella about military life.

As an interesting aside, Heinlein’s first marriage, which only lasted one year, was to Eleanor Curry; Rico’s ultra-tough boot camp with a less than 10% graduation rate was Camp Currie. Coincidence?

Starship Troopers remains one of Heinlein’s best sellers despite, or because of the controversy. It has spawned three movies, numerous games, and even US Military research (into powered armour). 50 years on, it still ranks at about #10,000 in’s best sellers rankings (but down at about #36,000 in the UK) and is rated 4.4 stars by 760 online reviewers (69% gave it 5 stars).

Like it or loath it, Starship Troopers is a significant work. It signifies the transition of Heinlein’s career of a writer for children to one for adults; it created the entire Military SF sub-genre, and is still being argued over more than a half century on. Without it Joe Haldeman might not have written The Forever War, likewise Orson Scott Card and Ender’s Game, we would not have Harry Harrison’s Bill, the Galactic Hero (no great loss some might say), Alastair Reynolds’ work would be lessened, and Warhammer 40K would lack the Space Marines. Starship Troopers marks a turning point in SF: it would never be the same again.

1 comment:

Peter Debney said...

You can read the SFX Book Club's thoughts on Starship Troopers at