The way things work around here, I guess it's an "it figures" situation that the site has been up three and a half years before I've gotten around to reviewing the novels of perhaps SF's most universally acknowledged grand master. Well, I'm finally tackling Heinlein — most of whose work I haven't read since l-o-n-g ago in high school — and it's appropriate that I start with Starship Troopers, a book that continues to resonate and influence to this day, and one whose popularity and luster hasn't been dimmed despite decades of imitations and a dippy movie. A spate of recent military SF novels that have proudly used Troopers as a template has made it appropriate for me to re-read this book after a gap of — good lord (choke) — 25 years.
Well, I still like it. Over the years the book has earned the appellation "controversial" for its politics, which are, to put it charitably, often appalling. But what makes Starship Troopers such an important book is its pioneering approach to dramatizing military themes in an SF context. I wasn't around at the time, but unless I miss my guess, Troopers was the first SF novel in which military life was depicted in a manner believable to readers who had actually served. If, like me, you haven't read the novel in decades, or if you've only experienced the cinematic Starship Troopers, you might be surprised by the fact the book contains only two brief battle scenes. Mostly, the narrative — the first-person account of infantryman Johnnie Rico — deals with Johnnie's coming-of-age experiences as a soldier, dressed up in often exhaustively detailed accounts of military maneuvers, logistics, policies and chain of command. We also get those political lectures. More on that in a minute.
As a fast-paced piece of action storytelling, Starship Troopers mostly races along at a speed entirely accessible to modern readers. I did find some of the passages dealing with such minutiae as the path of promotion to be slow going, more interesting perhaps to real military buffs than civilians. Still, I never cease to be pleasantly surprised by how much old-school SF (I'm talking 1950 on, mainly, as the real pulp-era Golden Age stories are mainly curios today), at least that which isn't too obviously dated, holds up. The best early work of Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, et al, remains classically ageless and perennially influential. It explains why, to this day, you'll read Troopers-inspired military SF whose storytelling isn't too far removed from what Heinlein was doing nearly half a century ago. Sometimes this will be to the newer book's detriment, but sometimes — as in the work of John Scalzi — Heinlein's influence provides a launching padfor fresher ideas.
The story is simplicity itself. Johnnie Rico, desperate to escape the controlling temperament of his wealthy father, enlists in the Mobile Infantry. He Becomes a Man following rigorous training — involving way-cool powered armor, a concept you can still see influencing such things as the video game Halo — and is then put to the test when humanity goes to war with a race of vicious giant alien insects. (You want to know where the line "Is this another bug hunt?" in Aliens came from?) Leadership, courage under fire, bonds of brotherhood, all the things that are today clichés of the war story are given a good workout here. But, as always when dealing with older fiction, perspective is important. This was all gloriously new to SF in 1959. The humanity Heinlein bestowed upon characters, the gritty realism of their conflicts, in what had largely been Flash Gordon territory up to that point was a significant step in science fiction's maturation.
There is, of course, the controversial part. Heinlein, even by Eisenhower-era standards, was a right-winger to do the Fox News Channel proud. In Starship Troopers, the idea that has taken the most heat over the years is that full citizenship, including the right to vote, ought to be a privilege reserved solely for veterans of public service, most commonly military. Only those who have personally shown willingness to lay down their lives for freedom are capable, Heinlein suggests, of properly appreciating freedom and are thus more deserving of its full benefits than those who haven't. You could dismiss this as nationalist elitism, but Heinlein, to his credit, does not argue as shallowly as, say, the average Fox News pundit. His sincere view is that veterans are best suited to be electors in society because their service indicates altruism; as rehashed by Star Trek II, the needs of the many outwiegh the needs of the few, or the one. (Defenders of Heinlein might at this point bring up that these views are espoused in the novel by a professor of Johnnie's and might not be Heinlein's at all. But any experienced reader knows it's also a well-worn convention when an author wants to mount his soapbox, and there's nothing in the narrative indicating these aren't the writer's sincere views. Heinlein's penchant for putting himself into his books would take its ultimate form in the character of Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land.)
My objection is probably no different than most of Heinlein's critics: whoever said only military service was the only way to serve your country loyally? In a free and pluralistic society, demonstrating one's altruism and willingness to put one's country first can take any number of forms — including the much-maligned (these days, especially) act of dissent. Yes, freedom is messy, and you will always have that share of shallow and selfish people. But is that alone justification for denying them participation in the process under which they are governed?
Other views of Heinlein's have, I think, been handily punctured, or at the very least modified, by time. In 1959, with America still flush from the success of our victory in WWII, the sentiment "violence solves all problems" probably resonated. But I can't imagine anyone but the most benighted chickenhawk embracing such an idea today, in our chaotic, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq world. Sometimes, violence solves problems, surely. But there are just as many problems too complex and nuanced to be dealt with simply by sending in the troops and waving the "Mission Accomplished" banner.
(An interesting aside: The movie, for all it deviated from the book, recognized its proto-fascist politics and addressed it satirically, with amusing fake recruitment ads for the Mobile Infantry and by having some characters dressed in very Nazi-esque uniforms. One can only imagine how Heinlein would have reacted had he lived to see it. This novel has zero, zip, zilch, no satire at all and precious little humor of any kind.)
One gets the impression that Heinlein expected, and perhaps hoped to encourage debate and discussions on the ides he advances in Starship Troopers. Love them or hate them, the novel's "controversial" politics were another feather in its cap. A novel in a genre heretofore — with choice exceptions — dedicated to escapist juvenilia was challenging adult readers to question their assumptions, and consider such ideas as duty, altruism and patriotism under the harsh light of scrutiny. I admit it doesn't happen too often, but sometimes, when a book presses your buttons, it isn't merely mindlessly baiting you. It's doing you an intellectual favor.