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Starship Troopers: Interpretation and Analysis

Killer300

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If you get curious enough, the collection Expanded Universe contains most of his nonfiction essays, where he tells the reader his worldview point-blank as a matter of persuasion. If you want to go further, there's Grumbles From The Grave, which is a collection of excerpt of letters, personal correspondence, and notes on his books.

So, allow me to quote - first from an article, "Where To?", he wrote in 1950, and revisited twice in 1965 and 1980 where he attempted to predict possible things that might happen in the future (with it being noted that such predictions ain't worth much). I'll spoiler it, because this is a lengthy quotation: I'll underline the most relevant bit and let's all laugh at it in the light of Iraq:

Spoiler: Show

4. 1950 It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.” We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend.

1965 Since 1950 we have done so in several theaters and are doing so in Viet Nam as this is written. “Preventive” or “pre-emptive” war seems as unlikely as ever, no matter who is in the White House. Here is a new prediction: World War III (as a major, all-out war) will not take place at least until 1980 and could easily hold off until 2000. This is a very happy prediction compared with the situation in 1950, as those years of grace may turn up basic factors which (I hope!) may postpone disaster still longer. We were much closer to ultimate disaster around 1955 than we are today-much closer indeed than we were at the time of the Cuban Confrontation in 1962. But the public never knew it. All in all, things look pretty good for survival, for the time being-and that is as good a break as our ancestors ever had. It was far more dangerous to live in London in 1664-5 than it is to live in a city threatened by H-bombs today.

1980 l am forced to revise the 1950 prediction to this extent: It is no longer certain that we will fight to repel attack on territory we have guaranteed to defend; our behavior both with respect to Viet Nam and to Taiwan is a clear warning to our NATO allies. The question is not whether we should ever have been in Viet Nam or whether we should ever have allied ourselves to the Nationalist Chinese. I do not know of any professional military man who favored ever getting into combat on the continent of Asia; such war for us is a logistic and strategic disaster.

But to break a commitment to an ally once it has been made is to destroy our credibility.



So, while not exactly supportive of the Vietnam war, certainly a worldview more concerned with realpolitik and the reputation of the United States than peace at all costs.

A second quote, about Starship Troopers itself, posted as an afterword to the reprint of an advertisement published called "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?", itself a response to a movement to have the United States end nuclear testing (without establishing some sort of international force to ensure both the US and the USSR abided by the treaty) addressing critics of the book. Again, death of the author and all that, but might as well let the fellow explain himself. I've snipped a few passages out to keep this fair-use-y and short.

Spoiler: Show

The “Patrick Henry” ad shocked ‘em; STARSHIP TROOPERS outraged ‘em. I still can’t see how that book got a Hugo. It continues to get lots of nasty “fan” mail and not much favorable fan mail.. . but it sells and sells and sells and sells, in eleven languages. It doesn’t slow down-four new contracts just this year. And yet I almost never hear of it save when someone wants to chew me out over it. I don’t understand it.

The criticisms are usually based on a failure to understand simple indicative English sentences, couched in simple words. (...) Their failures to understand English are usually these:

1. “Veteran” does not mean in English dictionaries or in this novel solely a person who has served in military forces. I concede that in commonest usage today it means a war veteran... but no one hesitates to speak of a veteran fireman or veteran school teacher. In STARSHIP TROOPERS it is stated flatly and more than once that nineteen out of twenty veterans are not military veterans. Instead 95% of voters are what we call today “former members of federal civil service.” (...)

2. He/she can resign at any time other than during combat-i.e., 100% of the time for 19 out of 20; 99% of the time for those in the military branches of federal service.

3. There is no conscription. (I am opposed to conscription for any reason at any time, war or peace, and have said so repeatedly in fiction, in nonfiction, from platforms, and in angry sessions in think tanks. I was sworn in first in 1923. and have not been off the hook since that time. My principal pride in my family is that I know of not one in over two centuries who was drafted; they all volunteered. But the draft is involuntary servitude, immoral, and unconstitutional no matter what the Supreme Court says.)

4. Criticism: “The government in STARSHIP TROOPERS is militaristic.” “Militaristic” is the adjective for the noun “militarism,” a word of several definitions but not one of them can be correctly applied to the government described in this novel. No military or civil servant can vote or hold office until after he is discharged and is again a civilian. The military tend to be despised by most civilians and this is made explicit. A career military man is most unlikely ever to vote or hold office; he is more likely to be dead-and if he does live
through it, he’ll vote for the first time at 40 or older.

“That book glorifies the military!” Now we are getting somewhere. It does indeed. Specifically the P.B.I., the Poor Bloody Infantry, the mudfoot who places his frail body between his loved home and the war’s desolation- but is rarely appreciated. (...) Glorify the military? Would I have picked it for my profession and stayed on the rolls the past 56 years were I not proud of it?

I think I know what offends most of my critics the most about STARSHIP TROOPERS: It is the dismaying idea that a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37°C.

But there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Democracies usually collapse not too long after the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses. . . for a while. Either read history or watch the daily papers; it is now happening here. Let’s stipulate for discussion that some stabilizing qualification is needed (in addition to the body being warm) for a voter to vote responsibly with proper consideration for the future of his children and grandchildren - and yours. The Founding Fathers never intended to extend the franchise to everyone; their debates and the early laws show it. A man had to be a stable figure in the community through owning land or employing others or engaged in a journeyman trade or something.


He then proposes a number of other ways one might do this, obviously more as thought experiments than practical suggestions: the government outright selling franchises as a primary means of income, being required to solve a randomly generated quadratic equation before being permitted to vote (with no lower age limit), denying the franchise to males and making it exclusively women-only for a while on the theory women are more practical than men.

Now, there's no shortage of flaws one can poke there, not the least being that racism is a thing and poll taxes and 'literacy tests' and everything else have long histories of being used to deny the vote to a class of people, all the way to the voter ID laws of today. But I don't believe Heinlein is spinning such possibilities out of hidden bigoted motives, and he was not completely ignorant of the realities of politics, having participated in political campaigns himself. I might fault him for being naive, but that kind of naiveity was more forgivable even in the 1960s than I'd find it today. But I think it's clear he is both much more pro-military than the average progressive is today, but that his image of the military was formed from the first and second World Wars, and reinforced by the Cold War. A Heinlein who lived long enough to see the wars of later on might be one of the solid establishment sorts that voted for them... or it might have been enough to break him, because his later novels were a bit more cynical on the matter. Hard to tell, without a time machine or a really good necromancer.

You can also see Heinlein was pretty cocksure about his opinions and I suspect as an RPG.net poster he wouldn't have lasted very long, but that's neither here nor there. :)
So, I think I get two things out of that,

1. Yeah, I don't think ST's society could've survived very long, because sooner or later, it would've made a commitment that forces it into a conflict that its military would suck at: A long grinding occupation where they can't use their brute force toys, and they're forced to struggle with a bunch of awkward ideological questions that would arise. For that matter, what about a conflict where they're forced to use conscription because they can't get enough manpower?

2. The book strikes me as... weirdly technocratic in hindsight, because in essence, then its not about the military, its about anyone who gets sufficient government experience. So, he's right, that wouldn't be a militaristic society. Instead, it would be a society dominated by bureaucrats, given that is a common position in the civil service. Honestly, I could see a version of Starship Troopers that ends up looking like modern day China, which I don't think was his intention, but, that is an example of a government run by and for bureaucracy.

Now, mind you, I probably would've screamed at him about how Rome collapsed because of stuff like income inequality, and how Ciscero, to use an example, turned out to be completely and utterly wrong about basically every single prediction he made about government along with how the founding fathers were utterly wrong on multiple topics, but, I seriously doubt he would've cared.
 

Taraqual

Words words words
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As was said, it has a big footprint. Its notable you don't hear nearly the degree of discussion about Clarke's Childhood End. Or, far as that goes, even Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.
When I was an undergrad back in the '90s, I saw a lot of chatter about Stranger in a Strange Land, especially because his later "pervy" books like Number of the Beast were fairly recent. I remember a couple USENET groups and local BBS chatter about To Sail Beyond the Sunset that got kicked up like six or seven years after its publication for reasons I never understood. (Maybe it was just because there was finally enough saturation of people who had read Heinlein and the spread of the Internet to the point where the conversations could spark up.)

SST gets a lot of discussion for two reasons, so far as I can tell. One, it often gets taught in military academies and the like, so it's one of the books a lot of people have read without necessarily knowing the context of Heinlein himself. Second, there was a movie made of it that completely misunderstood and misadapted the book, which led to a lot of arguments between people who had read the thing, who had only seen the movie, and people who had barely read the book and got the wrong ideas from it.

It's interesting to me that Heinlein, who was undoubtedly one of the most influential science fiction writers of his era (not only for what he wrote, but the way he interacted with the SF community, supporting and mentoring other writers, influencing editors and publishers, and so on) and a person whose ideas can still be seen being tackled by a lot of modern SF writers, had only a few films adapted from his works. Three of them were in the '50s, Body Snatchers (which was at least influenced by Puppet Masters) had two runs, Puppet Masters itself was a pretty dull film in the '90s, and then of course Starship Troopers.

But when I was young, we talked about all kinds of Heinlein and other books. Man, I knew someone who thought he must be the biggest hippie ever--like, he thought all the hippies were just kids who had read Stranger, despite all evidence to the contrary. And after a couple years of SST arguments online, it faded again--and them came back, and faded, and so on. I dunno, maybe as a new generations runs across the movie or the book, we have to go through this all again.

Well, designed *a* waterbed. They existed before him, and it's not clear later ones owed anything to him. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterbed#History_in_1800s
True. Not like he got rich off his version of the idea, and he's a man who would have done everything he could to cash in on it if possible.
 

Killer300

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Body Snatchers came from him? Huh.

But I'd say for Starship Troopers itself, I think both the book and the movie have a place, but, to burrow from another thread, the best version of it is probably Exo-Squad(I think that's the name), which is an animated series that tried to reconcile the book and the movie, from what I understand.

Otherwise, I think the book demonstrates, potentially, the value of creating a society that isn't meant to be a utopia, or a dystopia, but just different, and I think Heinlein makes that case worse by trying to defend the society depicted, although that may have helped book sales. Stuff like the Moon is a Harsh Mistress arguably does this better, I don't know, but, its the way I'm trying(I often fail), to analyze the society in the book.

For comparison, Stranger in a Strange Land seems very... tied to its time? A lot of what is commenting on seems, well, not gone, but just, stuff we've seen commented over and over and over again to the point where it may be difficult for the original book to really stand out.
 

Pyromancer

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As for why Jonny was rejected for literally every job in the Navy... yeah, I’ve always assumed either the jobs were full or that in many cases there were better qualified candidates available. Jonny isn’t dumb, but he does come across in the early part of the book as intellectually lazy and the placement officer asks him why he never studied anything useful in high school.
I find it remarkable that Johnny Rico doesn't make a single meaningful, thought-out decision in the book. He joins the military on a whim, because his friends do. He almost decides to drop out during basic training, but first doesn't do it because it would be inconvenient and then is "talked out" of it by a letter that isn't even written to that purpose. His comrades talk him into becoming an officer, and when he finally applies, his superior already has his papers ready. In the end, even his father approves of what he became.
It's a story about conformity and about meeting the expectations of society.
 

4th of Eleven

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Ironically, Rico ends up being the best argument against the system - his complete lack of introspection, motivation or curiosity about the world around him would make him the worst possible voter in a democratic system.
 

Taraqual

Words words words
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Body Snatchers came from him? Huh.
Most likely, the original book of The Body Snatchers (published in 1955) probably was inspired by The Puppet Masters by Heinlein (aliens invade by taking over humans), Ray Bradbury's "The Meteor" (which brings aliens that duplicate human) that had a movie adaptation in 1953, It Came From Outer Space, and maybe Phillip K. Dick's "The Father-thing," from 1954, which had the aliens duplicates coming out of pods. And also, the Red Scare, where our enemies the Commies might look just like ordinary people.

The Body Snatchers book, by the way, is awful. The Puppet Masters is far from being Heinlein's best, but it's a hell of a lot more readable and has some interesting ideas. Dick's story is the best of the lot (and I usually prefer Bradbury to Dick). All of them came from the same fears of invasion by ideas, our friends being taken over by alien concepts like "socialism might be good."
 

Kurt McMahon

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1. Yeah, I don't think ST's society could've survived very long, because sooner or later, it would've made a commitment that forces it into a conflict that its military would suck at: A long grinding occupation where they can't use their brute force toys, and they're forced to struggle with a bunch of awkward ideological questions that would arise. For that matter, what about a conflict where they're forced to use conscription because they can't get enough manpower?
It’s one of the reasons I have a hard time buying the Federation as an aggressive, expansionistic state. Based on Johnny’s experience, the failure rate for the M.I. is comparable to that of a Tier One special forces unit. In peacetime, their soldiers only have to serve two years, so there’s obviously a lot of turnover. And you can literally quit at any time (even during a war) as long as you’re willing to give up on being a citizen.

They are not capable of conquering planets with the army that they have and their society breaks the moment they resort to mass conscription. Arguably, even the Bug War caused the Federation serious strain; a single disastrous battle put them on the defensive for an extended period of time. By the end of the book they were winning the war, but only by destroying enemy planets rather than occupying them.

Maybe Heinlein intended that as a feature rather than a bug. It would certainly make invading your neighbors an unattractive option.

However, I suspect it has more to do with the specific time period in which the book was written. The U.S. Army spent the years between Korea and Vietnam struggling with an identity crisis, trying to prove to itself and others that it remained relevant in the nuclear age, and I think Starship Troopers reflects that era’s technocratic vision of warfare. Of course, by the end of the 1950s the rules of the game had changed again and nobody doubted the relevance of infantry any more.
 

Lenin

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It’s one of the reasons I have a hard time buying the Federation as an aggressive, expansionistic state.
If we buy Johnnie's Malthusian musings as the attitude of his government — or at least one faction of it — and not just something he's picked up by hanging with the wrong crowd (e.g. other rich kids who paid attention at school as little as he did) then it appears to be something the government aspires to.
 
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