Robert A. Heinlein,
Starship Troopers
(Putnam, 1959; Ace, 1987)

For me, Starship Troopers is all the proof you need in order to name Robert Heinlein science fiction's greatest writer.

I am getting in the bad habit of naming specific Heinlein books to be his very best, only to find that the next novel I pick up is even better than the last one. This particular novel is fascinating on a number of levels. There is nothing really special about Johnnie Rico; he's a normal lad who decides to join the military, ostensibly at the time in order to gain citizenship. In this future Terran confederation, only those who serve in the military are awarded citizenship and granted the privilege to vote. The government actually discourages volunteers and makes boot camp so difficult that only men with proper soldier qualities get through it.

On the broadest level, we see Rico's progression from harrowed recruit to active service in the Mobile Infantry to combat against the Klendathu. I have no military background at all, but I found Heinlein's descriptions of military life and actual combat to be detailed and thrilling. We watch Rico become a soldier. Along the way, he figures out why he actually did volunteer, developing a whole new outlook on duty and responsibility.

I don't want to delve too deeply into the politics of this novel. Some have pinned a fascist connotation on it, but I try to examine this future society philosophically. Only those who serve in the military can vote, but the vast majority of people choose not to serve and live happy lives as civilians, so I don't see anything fascist about this society. What intrigues me most -- and it is this that sets this book apart from the vast majority of science fiction -- is Heinlein's thought-provoking ideas about ethics, morality, duty, responsibility, etc. Mr. Dubois, Ricco's high school instructor in history and moral philosophy (a required course) gets in the ring and dukes it out with Plato, John Locke and a host of other political thinkers. He argues that man has no natural moral instinct; morality is acquired by the individual and is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. If an individual is not taught the lessons of living in society, he will not learn that the basis of all morality is duty. In this way he criticizes the democracies of the late 20th century and explains their ultimate failure. The promotion of the idea that certain natural rights are necessarily due each person caused young people to neglect their duties -- by concentrating on the rights they think are due them. Liberty and freedom must be earned and paid for, and democracies failed because they did not understand this basic tenet.

These kinds of ideas are the source of most of the criticisms directed toward Starship Troopers. I found many cogent arguments in the novel; criticism of democracy is not an endorsement of totalitarianism. Many would agree with some of the ideas Dubois puts forth (and which find their way into various places elsewhere in the book), but any agreement or disagreement should be purely intellectual. Great fiction is supposed to make us think deeply about important concepts, and Starship Troopers succeeds admirably in that regard.

Thus, Starship Troopers provides science fiction fans the best of both worlds. On the one hand, we have the well-told, gripping story of one man's military journey from boot camp to battlefields of war light years away from home, replete with several intense combat scenes. On the other hand, we have ideas of a political and philosophical nature laid out extremely well by the author, which is all but guaranteed to make you seriously think about society, government and warfare. In the end, duty and responsibility are stressed if not glorified, and I find nothing at all subversive in that.

Heinlein tells a fascinating story, and he makes you think, whether you want to or not. Few are the writers who can claim such lofty credentials.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 14 May 2005

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