I enjoyed this book, it reminded me of why I read sci-fi novels so eagerly as a kid. It’s got it all, neat science and tech, an alien species with whom humanity finds itself locked in a bitter struggle, an outcome that is far from certain and a vision of our future meant to provoke thought. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, according to the wikipedia page, was, after all, written “in an attempt to “clarify his…political views” while under attack for his ideas and activism in defence of nuclear weapons testing by the USA during the 1950’s. Despite being so much more than science fiction, Starship Troopers went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960 and continues to be a money maker.
If the outcome of the story is known to you before you read the book, then it’s probably because you’ve seen Paul Verhoeven’s movie version, or the animated sequels. Or you’ve played the games (board and computer), or maybe read the comics. I’ve only actually seen the movie, and quite enjoyed it. Verhoeven’s adaptation of Heinlein’s political vision intentionally invokes the aesthetic of Nazi Germany in giving form to Heinlein’s ideas about the ideal state and democracy. Others argue that Heinlein is a militarist. And some think it to be a morality play about responsibility.
Instead of giving my version of Heinlein’s argument (I’ll let him speak for himself), I will say that I was pleasantly surprised with the settings. The narrator, Juan “Johnny” Rico, spends a great amount of the novel in training as he is indoctrinated into life as a Mobile Infantryman. As a history nerd living in Alberta I recognized Camp Arthur Currie. Set in what would be Alberta, Camp Arthur Currie is where Johnny goes through basic Mobile Infantry training.
The region in real life is coincidentally home to Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, the main training base and home of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Living near there it was easy to visualize parts of the story.
Heinlein names the camp in Starship Troopers after the Canadian General Sir Arthur William Currie. General Currie was a real estate agent from Victoria who also served as an officer in the militia, as was customary for ‘men of worth’ in Canadian civil society in at the time. He led the Canadian Corps during World War I, and was arguably one of the most effective General Officers commanding troops amongst British and Commonwealth forces during that conflict.
At any rate, I was unaware Heinlein was such a fan of Canadian history. Despite this Johnny Rico is not identified as a “Canadian” soldier, Curiously, an ethnicity is pointedly revealed for Johnny on the last page of the book, I’m not sure what the significance is for the author but I guess there is one. Nationality is only spoken of in retrospect. The earth of Starship Troopers, and Heinlein’s aspiration for humanity, takes shape as a “one world government” type affair. Much like Brave New World, or Nineteen Eighty Four; only Heinlein isn’t warning us of anything, he’s proposing something. What’s more, he was an activist in defence of his ideas. This is no dystopian future for the author.
Verhoeven’s interpretation of Heinlein’s vision is dubious. Fascism, when you really look at it, achieves state power only when there is a revolution that needs to be crushed. Even Germany is more appropriately described as a Military Dictatorship than a Fascist state after the SA were neutered in 1934. Up to the beginning of 1933, when the Nazi’s won the election, this wing of the party which had formed its armed force and main agent of violence and intimidation.
The SA cleared the way for Nazi power but quickly outlived its usefulness. During the Night of the Long Knives it was violently purged, and its leadership killed In order to appease the German military, the only remaining impediment to power for Hitler.
There is little evidence of the working class or revolution, and private property in corporations and personal wealth are established as fundamental to the world economy in Starship Troopers. Aside from the metaphorical in the war with “the Bugs,” Heinlein’s portrayal lacks any trace of class conflict, its society is ultimately far too stable to be believably “Fascist.” There is, however, a distinct emphasis on the military (particularly the war tested variety). Its traditions and techniques, and the culture of its service inform the model for Heinlein’s vision. I think calling it Fascistic misses the point, and overstates something for dramatic effect.
At the end of the day the book poses interesting questions which are still relevant despite the end of the Cold War almost 30 years ago. It offers visions of alternate post World War geopolitical formations and political alliances that may actually have more in common with the potential realities in 2017 than those of 1960. The main political theme, if you will, is the authors love affair with the military, and a veneration of service which reflects nostalgic heroism for veterans of the world wars, and society mobilized for war. In many ways Heinlein is venerating an image whose distorted and awkward reflection we see and hear in the media, and from politicians, for the veterans of today’s wars.
As a history and military nerd I was thrilled by the story. As a sci- fi fan I loved it. With the victory of Donald Trump in the American election the questions it poses about Democracy are regaining a vitality that makes Starship Troopers slightly less “imaginative,” perhaps, than when it was written. As far as it goes, Heinlein isn’t offering a critical economic analysis of state formations, their historical development, and future prospects. Rather, he limits himself to more technical questions, but the implications are definitely there. That’s perhaps one of the things that makes this book, ultimately, a great piece of Sci- Fi.