Starship Troopers.

My latest review for Paste covers the app version of Camel Up.

Robert A. Heinlein was both a prolific and critically-lauded writer of science fiction, with an emphasis on keeping the science somewhat grounded in the possible and using it as the platform to explore themes of liberty, individualism, and the role of government. Yet as far as I can remember, I’d only read one of his books, one of his young adult novels called Between Planets, and none of the four core Heinlein works that won Hugo Awards for Best Novel. (What I remember most strongly about that book was the absurd notion that humans could colonize Venus, but apparently at the time Heinlein wrote it scientists were unaware of that planet’s hellish atmosphere and climate.)

Starship Troopers won Heinlein the second of those four Hugos, four years after he won for Double Star and two years before his magnum opus, Stranger in a Strange Land, did the same. I was turned off from reading the book after seeing the trailer for the apparently very unfaithful 1997 film adaptation, but the book is nowhere near as dumb as the movie. (Casper Van Dien, who starred in that film version, was most recently spotted in a straight-to-DVD film called Avengers Grimm that holds a 13% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Heinlein’s book, written as a first-person memoir of the protagonists youth and first few years serving as a space marine, touches on many of the themes I mentioned above, while also apparently drawing controversy for its overtly militaristic setting … although I don’t agree with criticism of the work as somehow pro-war or even pro-fascism.

Johnny Rico is the space marine and narrator of Starship Troopers, having defied his wealthy father’s wishes and signed up for the service, only to find himself in a boot camp of unimaginable intensity, one designed to weed out most of the recruits. In this future society, Earth is ruled by a single government, and is engaged in war against sentient ant-like creatures just called “Bugs” from another solar system, and only retired veterans of the armed forces are allowed to vote. Rico’s personal philosophy is shaped by his experiences at boot camp and through “moral philosophy” professors he encounters (although he also takes a lot of math), but his presentation is hardly such that the reader should take his views as Heinlein’s. The one-world government arose after western societies collapsed due to rampant crime, much of it committed by undisciplined juveniles, and gave rise to this military-focused regime, one that seems built to feed the machine even when no conflict exists and thus to extend any conflict when one arises.

That bit of cynicism is more mine than Rico’s, but led me to believe that Heinlein was presenting a somewhat extreme scenario – a veiled dystopia – to show one potential outcome of contemporary social and economic trends. While Heinlein seems to come down on the side of harsher discipline of errant children, he also clearly presents the one-world government as one that sees war as the answer to many questions, and thus is somewhat unable to find non-conflict resolutions. If Heinlein is praising the military at all, it is for the way that such experiences can shape the character of an undisciplined young person or one who feels no sense of personal responsibility – although in Rico’s case, it wasn’t so much a lack of discipline or responsibility as a case of teenaged rebellion and a lack of motivation to work because of his father’s wealth. The world of Starship Troopers is hardly utopian; while individuals have a wide degree of personal liberty, the lack of the franchise is a significant debit, and the war-torn world where Buenos Aires and San Francisco are “smeared” by alien attacks is hardly one to appeal to any readers and make them want to sign up for the space marines.

If anything, Starship Troopers comes across as lighter fare than the discussion around its themes might indicate; Heinlein gives Rico a colloquial tone and matter-of-fact delivery that breezes through the philosophical lectures and lets the tension of the book’s few military encounters take over. There isn’t a single central narrative; the plot is the memoir itself, rather than a single military mission or even a story of the war with the Bugs. You could just as easily read the book without worrying about whether Heinlein was promoting fascism or capital punishment or revoking most citizens’ right to vote.

Next up: Still slogging through William Faulkner’s A Fable.


  1. I think you’re doing yourself a disservice by dismissing the film version of Starship Troopers. While it may not be very faithful to the source material, it’s still a work of minor genius, especially since it appears the cast and director thought they were each making a very different kind of movie, with Verhoeven making a piece of anti-fascism satire (complete with a scene that was shot-for-shot taken from Triumph of the Will), while the ridiculously good looking cast thought they were playing a straight-up action movie. I mean, freaking Neil Patrick Harris plays the boy genius. It’s definitely worth checking out. So the case wasn’t even in on the joke.
    But other than the bugs and the character names, there’s apparently not that much of a connection to the book, so if you don’t like loud movies, probably keep ignoring this one.

  2. Greg is right. The Paul Verhoeven film is exactly a work of minor genius, a fun satire of the militaristic themes of the book. I particularly enjoy the openly fascist news media that, like the media in Idiocracy, is really not that far off from what we actually have today.

  3. I loved the book as a teenager and still like it. It focuses in particular on one theme that is recurrent throughout his work: the importance of the individual’s willingness to put himself in harm’s way to protect his community. But he was also serious about some other aspects of it, e.g. the whippings – he believed imprisonment didn’t rehabilitate anyone.

    The other comments here though are right about the movie. I would not go so far as to call it genius, but the most literary person I know *adores* the film; he doesn’t understand how any intelligent person can’t see the whole thing is satire. I was once at a showing of Total Recall that Verhoeven was present for, and he confirmed in the Q&A afterwards that a major factor in doing Starship Troopers was the fact that he got his start in movies making propaganda films for the Dutch marines. (Also that he tried to seduce the viewers into liking the characters “only to find out they’re Nazis.”)

    By far the weirdest thing he said in the Q&A was that his biggest regret about Hollywood was that he was only hired to make other people’s films and didn’t get to make the ones he wanted to. I was stunned when he said that he wanted to make a film about Victoria Woodhull. I would pay $50 to see that movie.

  4. Don’t mean to be repetitive, but yes, the movie is great. And for as cutting a satire it is, it is also enjoyable as a straight up action flick. I think it is possible to enjoy both aspects.

  5. Thanks, Keith. Your take is pretty much as I recall. If I had to classify Heinlein, I guess I’d describe him as a classic libertarian: most of his books have a running theme of personal independence. Several of his books (“Revolt in 2100”, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” are two examples) also feature rebellion against political authority. A large chunk of his early works were written for the juvenile market (he wrote for Boys’ Life, for example), so the “message” is muted. His work from, say 1980 (“The Number of the Beast”) onward are much more philosophical tracts. Despite not agreeing with him, he’s still one of my favorite authors. Thanks for the review!

  6. Heinlein had quite a bit of salty language directed towards people reading things into his work. The short answer is: DON’T. He was a writer. He explored themes in fictional universes and he felt that people who tried to pin him to his political belief through the works were barking up the wrong tree as he was clear about his actual political and social beliefs in his non-fiction writing.

    That’s why you get Starship Troopers on one hand and Stranger in a Strange Land on the other then see him go sideways to both with Job: A Comedy of Justice. And then there’s no way to reconcile those with the themes of Glory Road or Farham’s Freehold.

    As for the movie. It was ham-fished, ham-acted, b-list and, for the kicker, Verhoeven didn’t even finish the book before he made the movie. And it’s not exactly War & Peace. But that’s what I expect from Verhoeven who seems to be incredibly hit-and-miss in his movie making. You get Total Recall and RoboCop on one side. Then Showgirls and Starship Troopers on the other.

  7. Further derailing the discussion…I’ve heard the claim of Verhoeven’s meta-genius, that casting a group of actors too dimwitted to realize what kind of movie they’re making is a commentary on the type of people who would willingly sign up to enforce a fascist/militaristic society. He may very well have done that. I would submit, though, that getting such a movie approved, made, and released would indeed be an act of genius, the resulting product is anything but. Turns out that putting too many stupid, pretty people in a movie derails it as an entertainment.

  8. I’m a fan of Heinlein and think Starship Troopers is one of his best. But I dislike RAH’s approach to Manifest Destiny. It is fairly unpleasant in Troopers, where its fight or die against the Bugs, a mythical hive mentality. But it really bothers me more when it is racially directed as in Farnham’s Freehold (blacks) or Sixth Column (Asians).

    And Heinlein does have some quirks that I wish he had avoided. I can understand the stilted male-female descriptions in his early works (e.g. Starman Jones, Tunnel in the Sky) since they were written in the 40s & 50s and largely for a male tween audience But other things bother me more. His pro-incest passages in Time Enough for Love or Number of the Beast are off-putting. And it would be fair to say that the passages in Glory Road and others where he writes that it is appropriate for the man to “spank” his spouse for her transgressions is not something exactly admirable.

    That isn’t to say that I think he should have stayed away from possibly uncomfortable subjects. I certainly don’t agree with his political POV in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but think the novel stands up very well. But I think his best work is in his short stories (e.g. Green Hills of Earth, Long Watch, his very first published story Let There Be Light, and especially The Man Who Sold the Moon) where he can develop characters, settings, and plots quickly and cleanly even if sometimes with dated sexual mores (e.g. Delilah and the Space Jockey)

  9. I’m with those lauding Verhoeven’s film. Smuggling the ant-fascist message into what many (including members of the cast as mentioned) took for straight action elevated the material. It says something about how far I’ve moved away from my speculative fiction consumption that I have never considered seeking out the book. Added to the list…