A Retrospective Look At Science Fiction Book ‘Starship Troopers’

Posted Friday, December 9th, 2011 07:15 pm GMT -4 by

With all the news about the ‘Starship Troopers’ remake, we couldn’t help but feel a little bit of nostalgia and decided to revisit the acclaimed book with some discussion.


The Action

Johnnie Rico jumps to the top of the tallest building in the neighborhood. He flips the snoopers up, looking for a target worth shooting at. There’s a tall building on the horizon. He lets the rocket see it and says “Go find it, baby” as the nuclear-tipped missile leaps away. Pausing only to fry a skinny popping up ahead of him, he jumps in long, easy strides towards the recall beacon as enemy slugs bounce harmlessly off his powered armor. It’s just another morning’s work for the Mobile Infantry.

The Hero

Johnnie Rico is a Filipino, the son of a rich man. Destined for the family business, he decides on high school graduation to join the Federal Service instead. His father is furious, his mother distraught, yet he goes ahead anyway. He wants to impress a girl he fancies, Carmen, who is shooting for starship pilot while his best friend Carl is signing up for military R&D – and perhaps that’s sufficient explanation.

Rico optimistically lists his preferences: Space Navy for the travel; Military Intelligence for the spying; Psychological Warfare because it sounds interesting. After a battery of tests and assessments (‘A boy who gets C-minus in Appreciation of Television can’t be all bad’), Rico is assigned to his unit of last resort, the Mobile Infantry.

In basic training at Camp Currie, Rico learns the military ethos from Sergeant Zim. Rookie Ted Hendrick asks Zim why they’re learning knife fighting when the Navy has H-Bombs which can sterilize a planet. Zim explains the concept of controlled violence, the art of using enough force to achieve political ends. In the film, this episode was coarsened to the following dialogue:

Recruit: Sir, I don’t understand – who needs a knife in a nuke fight anyway… All you gotta do is push a button, sir.
Zim: Put your hand on the post, private.
Recruit: AWK!
Zim: The enemy cannot push a button if you disable his hand. MEDIC!

About half way through the novel Rico gets to graduate from basic training and immediately sees action in an ill-advised assault on the planet Klendathu. Operation Bughouse was a mass assault on the enemy’s home planet which ended up as a massacre. Warrior bugs swarmed from tunnels to decimate the ranks of the MI – Rico is one of the few survivors.

Rico now undertakes more combat drops, one of which is the action against the skinnies already described. He works his way up to Sergeant, and on the R&R planet Sanctuary is persuaded by his best friend to ‘go career’ and enlist in Officer Cadet School (OCS). The latter half of the novel sees Rico back in training again, with more didactic discussion about the military ethos. As Rico is about to be given a temporary commission (third lieutenant) before the field-command part of the course, he’s given a pep talk by Commandant Colonel Nielssen.

‘What is the largest number of command levels ever knocked out in a single battle?’

Dead silence.

‘Very well, it was during the Napoleonic wars. This young officer was a teenager, a temporary third lieutenant who had never seen combat. There were four officers on the ship in the chain of command above him. When the battle started his commanding officer was wounded. The kid picked him up and carried him out of the line of fire. But he did it without being ordered to leave his post. The other officers all bought it while he was doing this, and he was court-martialed for ‘deserting his post of duty as commanding officer in the presence of the enemy’. Convicted. Cashiered.

‘Mr Rico, could this happen to you?’

I gulped. ‘I hope not, sir.’

‘Let me tell you how it could …’

Colonel Nielssen’s example here was a real event .

Rico’s ‘apprentice drop’ is a mission to capture specimens of the bugs’ ‘brain caste’. In typical fashion he acquits himself no more than adequately while the real triumph goes to someone else. Rico nevertheless graduates and in the finale we see him mentoring another young cub of an officer cadet, about to drop into a combat zone and still suffering the shakes.

The Politics

Starship Troopers’ advances a theory of human nature and politics. In high school and at OCS, Rico and his colleagues are required to attend History and Moral Philosophy classes, always led by a veteran. Along with Rico we learn that back in the twentieth century, liberal parenting and an indulgent legal and court system led to a situation where ‘law abiding people hardly dared to go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf-packs of children armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons …’

We are told that the western democracies collapsed as the universal franchise led to more and more entitlements being voted without regard for who would pay for them (‘Starship Troopers’ was written in 1959).

The novel’s remedy is a franchise restricted to veterans. There is a lengthy discussion about why this works – the argument depends upon symmetry between power and responsibility. Only those who have shown they are prepared to give their own lives in service to the community should have the right to decide how that community should be governed. Military service here operates here as a kind of filter for those who are sufficiently community-minded to be permitted to become citizens with a vote.

With its explicit evocation of concepts later developed in a more sophisticated manner within sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, the politics of ‘Starship Troopers’ has always been controversial.

Sex and Violence

For all its political and technological prescience, we are sometimes jolted back to the 1950s. For a novel steeped in male machismo and the technologies of violence, the other side of the soldier’s life is completely absent. Rico occasionally goes on dates and – as far as we’re told – if he’s lucky he might get a parting kiss. Women are idolized as the reason a man fights and as the most wonderful beings in the universe, but we’re firmly on the Woman-as-Madonna side of the equation here. Even on Sanctuary, the R&R planet, there’s never a hint of anything insalubrious.

Violence is something else. There’s not much explicit description of combat wounding or even of combat itself, but the MI attrition rate is extremely high and MI officers in non-combat roles are invariably horribly disabled – lacking hands, arms, legs and sometimes even paralyzed from the neck down. It’s very reminiscent of recent middle-eastern wars. No-one seems to suffer from PTSD though.

The Impact

According to Wikipedia, ‘Starship Troopers’ is on the reading lists of the United States Marine Corps and the United States Navy. It is the first science fiction novel on the reading lists at three of the five United States military branches.

When Heinlein wrote ‘Starship Troopers’ the United States military was a largely conscripted force, with conscripts serving two year hitches. Today the U.S. military has incorporated many ideas similar to Heinlein’s concept of an all-volunteer, high-tech strike force. In 2002 a Marine general described the future of Marine Corps clothing and equipment as needing to emulate the Mobile Infantry

Unlike Heinlein’s dated 1968 novel, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ (often mistakenly cited as his best), ‘Starship Troopers’ retains all of its relevance. Consider this famous exchange between History and Moral Philosophy instructor Dubois and a student in his class.

‘My mother says that violence never settles anything.’

‘So?’ Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. ‘I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?’

‘You’re making fun of me. Everyone knows that Carthage was destroyed!’

‘You seemed unaware of it,’ he said grimly. ‘Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly?’

As long as the human race endures, issues like this will never finally be resolved.

Further reading

Some quotes from the film version.