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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, May 25, 2015

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein - review with spoilers

Following yesterday's post about Starship Troopers, I finished reading the book. To keep all this in one place, I'll self-plagiarise, with small adjustments, some of what I said yesterday, before making some observations about the book as I encountered it this time round. I need to talk about some of its overall structure, which inevitably means that there will be spoilers for people who have never read it.

Starship Troopers is one of Robert A. Heinlein's most loved, yet most reviled works. It won Heinlein a "best novel" Hugo Award in 1960, but it is despised by most academic critics and many others.

From my viewpoint, it is a key novel in Heinlein's oeuvre, but also in science fiction's tradition as a literature of ideas. Does that mean I actually agree with its ideas? No. But the book is written off by many people who seem unwilling to grapple with its merits, its philosophy, and its complexities. Up to a point, it can reasonably be viewed as militarist propaganda. At the same time, it is an important and thoughtful didactic novel that deserves careful, imaginative engagement - and some close attention and nuanced discussion.

The book features an ongoing interstellar war between humankind and the alien "Bugs", but it does not portray the Bugs' ultimate defeat. As the novel ends, the war continues, despite some military successes for the human side. It is also notable that no justification is given for the war beyond the rival territorial ambitions of the two species. The implication is that war is inevitable, and must be accepted - and we must plan accordingly. Moral systems that condemn war outright or justify it only in narrow circumstances (as in the scholastic tradition of just war theory) are non-starters. For Heinlein, it seems, morality has to work with inevitabilities, and warfare is one of them. That is going to be an unpalatable message for many of us, and to that extent the book deserves its reputation for militarism.

If the story is not of military victory against the odds, what is it really about? The narrative voice gives us a clue: it is narrated in the first person by its protagonist, Juan Rico, who clearly survives the action and is now reflecting - from a position of greater wisdom and self-understanding - on his own life trajectory. He tells a story of the formation and building of a military officer, from his confused decision to enlist through the accumulation of events that moulded him into a man who can lead other fighting men.

Thus, the story is not humanity's war against the Bugs, but, rather, an individual's psychological (as well as physical) growth through hardship and dedication. As Rico undergoes the rigours of military training and combat, he learns - and we are shown - that military life is an honourable and (if things go well amidst the dangers) satisfying choice. Again, many of us may find that an unpalatable message - one that we might naturally tend to resist - but Heinlein builds an impressive case: this is done not so much through the book's heavy-handed passages of debate and instruction as through the accumulation of events that we share with Rico as he endures and matures.

Rico tells us about the events in a way that is slightly distanced from them - there is a certain amount of personal reflection woven through his narration, and the prose is not quite as thick and gritty as we might expect from a third-person style of narration focused on the character's moment-by-moment thoughts and perceptions. Nonetheless, we are shown the hardships of military life in considerable detail; indeed, Heinlein ups the ante by presenting us with a military system that is supposed to be extraordinarily efficient, but also very brutal by modern standards, with routine use of flogging as a punishment. (Some of the most off-putting material in the book, from my perspective, is rather crude propaganda for corporal punishment, not only in the military but also in the process of child-rearing.)

Notoriously, Starship Troopers portrays a society in which the right to vote is granted only to retired military personnel - not necessarily those who fought on the frontline, but anyone who volunteered for service and successfully served out their term. This limited franchise is defended not as a reward for virtue or as a recognition of any form of intellectual superiority (the latter idea is explicitly dismissed); rather, the idea is that those who volunteered and served have demonstrated they are exceptionally responsible people who place the welfare of the many ahead of their own personal safety. Thus, they can be trusted with the vote. Supposedly, this system works well in producing wise political decisions.

Since the story is set in the future, Heinlein can postulate new developments in human knowledge, not limited to technological advances. Most importantly, moral philosophy has supposedly become a mathematically exact science. This is bluff, of course, and despite much talk of mathematical demonstrations the classroom debates that we are shown involve rather banal and sloppy arguments. Still, this device enables Heinlein to suggest the possibility of a single true moral theory (at least for human beings) based on various levels of survival: individual, familial, social, etc., up to the level of the species itself. Just how all this is supposed to be reconciled is never explained (perhaps just as well!), but we're assured that the future society can somehow justify all its political structures and decisions, including the various rituals, customs, and quirks of the military.

Although this is bluff, it works to the extent that what we are actually shown (or at least told about in detail) is consistent with the sketchy theory. Rico really does seem to mature as events move on for him, the military forces of humanity really do seem to operate efficiently, the regime of harsh training and discipline seems justified insofar as it produces desired results, and so on. All of this could doubtless be criticised from numerous viewpoints - not least one that notes an element of sentimentalising of senseless violence - but the book is, by and large, successful on its own terms. At a minimum, it is a highly skilled exercise in recruitment propaganda: it shows military life as hard, rigorous, and unglamorous, yet gives that a sort of glamour or allure of its own.

No one could claim that Starship Troopers is an anti-war book that merely shows the honour and the plight of the troops. It openly embraces the necessity of war. Again, that might be an unpalatable (and perhaps untenable) message. However, some critical readings or comments that I've encountered strike me as exercises in avoidance of the book's genuine literary skill and power. Even potentially embarrassing scenes, as when Rico's forty-something father follows his son into military service near the end of the book, are handled rather deftly.

Starship Troopers was rejected by Scribner's for its series of juveniles by Heinlein, and, indeed, despite its relatively young protagonist, this does not feel like a book written primarily for an adolescent market. For younger readers, it offers something of the mystique of military life, but it is also a novel of ideas - primarily ideas in political and moral philosophy - aimed at an audience of all ages. Palatable or not in its ideas and its occasionally over-explicit didacticism, it puts science fiction tropes to serious use in examining deep questions about the nature of a good society and a good life. It merits thought, and perhaps even some hostile scrutiny, but it is not an achievement that we can dismiss.

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