September 12, 2002

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Back in the days when I read rec.arts.sf.written (the USENET science fiction news Starship Troopers would trigger a major battle of words. One can (a little unfairly) state the political philosophy of the book in one sentence: only those who have shown that they are willing to put their nation's good before their own good through military service should be entrusted with the right to vote.

This led to endless discussion as to whether Heinlein was right or wrong, and little of it was to the point, which is this: Heinlein wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a spoiled rich kid who learns discipline, maturity, and responsibility through military service. He needed a world in which such a kid might reasonably choose to enlist without being drafted, and without the threat of war (the war begins after Johnny Rico enlists) and so he needed a carrot to entice Johnny and his peers into taking the oath. In Johnny's case he provides two: the franchise, and a beautiful young lady of Johnny's acquaintance who chooses to enlist at the same time (she eventually becomes a pilot). Callow youth that Johnny is, it's the desire to impress the girl that really does the trick.

All else follows from that. Having created this world, Heinlein needed to justify it--to provide verysmellitude as Michael Cantrip would say-- and he does this through the courses in "History and Moral Philosophy" that Johnny is made to take. Heinlein was fascinated by ethics, and he loved to play with ideas. To find out what he really thought about these matters, one would have to look elsewhere.

But although the ethical side is interesting (and, in some cases, compelling), it's not the heart of the book. This is a boot camp story; it's a trial by fire story; it's an adventure story. It's the story of a kid getting over himself and getting on with the job--"getting shut of doing things rather more or less". Plus it's got some really cool gadgets. Powered armor has become a stock prop these days, but I was blown away by the idea when I first read it. So what's not to like?

Posted by Will Duquette at September 12, 2002 07:39 PM