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Starship Troopers: Interpretation and Analysis

Kurt McMahon

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I don't know Heinleins intentions, but I didn't walk away from "Starship Troopers" thinking: "Yeah, this is how we should organize our society". And my guess is that if Heinlein had thought it would be a good idea, he would have made his protagonist a little bit less passive and a little bit more sympathetic.
Johnny’s not quite as passive as some people are making him out to be. The initial idea to serve a term was his own:
Oh, I had mentioned to my father, late in my senior year in high school, that I was thinking over the idea of volunteering for Federal Service. I suppose every kid does, when his eighteenth birthday heaves into sight - and mine was due the week I graduated. Of course most of them just think about it, toy with the idea a little, then go do something else - go to college, or get a job, or something. I suppose it would have been that way with me... if my best chum had not, with dead seriousness, planned to join up.
So Carl’s decision to join up and his telling Johnny, “Your old man won’t let you” just solidified Johnny’s own thinking.

As for following expectations, well, the expectations for Johnny’s life were made very clear to him by his father:
”When you graduate, you’re going to study business at Harvard; you know that. After that, you will go on to the Sorbonne and you’ll travel a bit along with it, meet some of our distributors, find out how business is done elsewhere. Then you’ll come home and go to work. You’ll start with the usual menial job, stock clerk or something, just for form’s sake - but you’ll be an executive before you can catch your breath, because I’m not getting any younger and the quicker you can pick up the load, the better. As soon as you’re able and willing, you’ll be boss. There! How does that strike you as a program? As compared with wasting two years of your life?”
(The fact that Johnny’s father is confident his son can get into Harvard with his transcript tells me that the institutions of the Starship Troopers universe are no more immune to the blandishments of money than ours are today. Clearly, the “gentleman’s C” for the 1% is still alive and well, citizen or not!)

Johnny did unwittingly fulfill the expectations of his History & Moral Philosophy Teacher, but those expectations weren’t directly expressed to him until after he’d already made his own decision.

It was Ace who initially put the idea of going career in Johnny’s head, but Johnny gave the decision some serious thought and by that point in the book had a decent handle on his own motivations:
Go career? Quite aside from that noise about a commission, did I want to go career? Why, I had gone through all this to get my franchise, hadn’t I? - and if I went career, I was just as far away from the privilege of voting as if I had never enrolled... because as long as you were still in uniform you weren’t entitled to vote. Which was the way it should be, of course - why, if they let the Roughnecks vote the idiots might vote not to make a drop. Can’t have that.

Nevertheless I had signed up in order to win a vote. Or had I? Had I ever cared about voting? No, it was the prestige, the pride, the status... of being a citizen.

Or was it? I couldn’t to save my life remember why I had signed up.

Anyhow, it wasn’t the process of voting that made a citizen - the Lieutenant had been a citizen in the truest sense of the word, even though he had not lived long enough ever to cast a ballot. He had “voted” every time he made a drop.

And so had I!

I could hear Colonel Dubois in my mind: “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part... and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”

I still didn’t know whether I yearned to place my one-and-only body “between my loved home and the war’s desolation” - I still got the shakes every drop and that “desolation” could be pretty desolate. But nevertheless I knew at last what Colonel Dubois had been talking about. The M.I. was mine and I was theirs. If that was what the M.I. did to break the monotony, then that was what I did. Patriotism was a bit esoteric for me, too large-scale to see. But the M.I. was my gang, I belonged. They were all the family I had left; they were the brothers I had never had, closer than Carl had ever been. If I left them, I’d be lost.

So why shouldn’t I go career?
Camaraderie is hardly an unusual motivation for a soldier. Author David Drake certainly understands it, even though he has almost nothing good to say about his own service in Vietnam:
The people I served with in 1970 (the enlisted men) were almost entirely draftees. At that time nobody I knew in-country:
  • thought the war could be won;
  • thought our government was even trying to win;
  • thought the brutal, corrupt Saigon government was worth saving;
  • thought our presence was doing the least bit of good to anybody, particularly ourselves.
But you know, I’m still proud of my unit and the men I served with. They weren’t exactly my brothers, but they were the folks who were alone with me. Given the remarkably high percentage of those eligible who’ve joined the association of war-service Blackhorse veterans, my feelings are normal for the 11th Cav. Nobody who missed the Vietnam War should regret the fact. It was a waste of blood and time and treasure. It did no good of which I’m aware, and did a great deal of evil of which I’m far too aware. But having said that...

I rode with the Blackhorse.

Rose Embolism

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But he does kinda have a point. Voting yourself bread and circuses and voting to force other people to "live moral lives" are both common pitfalls, and trying to start a conversation on how to prevent that is worth doing.

I don't think either Luna or the Starship Troopers approach would work, but at least the ball starts rolling.
Hell, one of his other early stories inverted this setup and had a society where they had referendums on whether to go to war, and if the referendums passed, everyone who voted for the war was drafted.

Sometimes they mention The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but mainly to do the incoherent libertarians-are-secret-fascists business. They tend to miss that in that book, he literally has a force of power-armored troopers of the Earth government show up and massacre a lot of civilians, including someone in the protagonist's family. The man had themes, but he contained multitudes.

Yup. Someone mentioned stories with voting tests from 80s Analog, and I remember how those were almost all, "Let's keep the ignorant, warlike conservatives from voting so they can't start a nuclear war!". I remember one* had a woman living in a lunar colony** trying to defend their literacy tests to an explicitly Republican congressman.

* I'm blanking on the writer, but it was in a series of stories about a future astronaut who became a nearly full-conversion cyborg after massive radiation dosage. Rather realistically done, with her basically being assembled out of off-the-shelf prosthetics and dealing with everyone having uncanny-valley reactions to her.
** It was weird because there were only a few young children as second-generation colonists, and the first-generation colonists were all astronauts and scientists. Why would anyone need testing, if you accepted some need?


Words words words
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Was he one of the writers for Destination Moon (1950) also? I caught part of it on TV recently.
He has a screenwriting credit for it, and at the minimum was a technical adviser and gave a lot of input into the final screenplay. I know a couple Heinlein biographers and they sorta disagree how much the story was his. One says he came in at the end to provide a gloss of respectable SF to it, another says he basically rewrote or heavily modified the script and it's his baby. They did adapt part of his story "Rocket Ship Galileo" to the final screenplay, and Heinlein wrote a tie-in novel later. There are also a few things similar to The Man Who Sold the Moon, which he'd written but had not published yet.

So...hard to say. I watched it once and thought it was basically Heinlein's film (and also thought he was not as good a screenwriter as he was a prose writer). Reading about it since, I think the original scriptwriters were trying to do their best take on Heinlein and eventually got the man himself involved.

Fabius Maximus

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Yeah, these days I'm inclined to see Johnnie as someone who's just parroting latter-day fascism, the equivalent of "we will not be replaced" for the interstellar age, as likely got from his cohort at school as from general society.
Except that doesn't work--either in the execrable movie or the book, because the Bug's are portrayed, and we have no reason to doubt book or movie, as more or less unrelentingly hostile.

In fact, it's funny, but the movie in this regard is better fascist propaganda then the book--the bugs are a horde, completely alien, yet with none of the technology that could brand them as anything but the "other" The Brainbug isn't taken because it's a way to negotiate, but because it's a tool for victory.
The Book had the ambiguity of the idea of "can we negotiate with them?" Going for it.


Mad Scientist
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In the book it's clear that negotiating with the bugs is possible, as the bugs have diplomatic relations. Whether a negotiated lasting peace is achievable is not established.
Except that doesn't work--either in the execrable movie or the book, because the Bug's are portrayed, and we have no reason to doubt book or movie, as more or less unrelentingly hostile.
Which is rather irrelevant to the "Malthusian musings" in question, which make substantial assertions that do not depend on the existence or nature of the bugs.

Strange Visitor

Grumpy Grognard
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In all fairness, there is someone in a position of "authority" who does state some of the more questionable views besides Johnny--Dubois. Its not quite clear how much of this is for affect given he's usually saying it to a bunch of teenagers who are in a class they don't want to be and who he probably views need a two-by-four to get any of their attention--but he does say them.

But there's nothing to really suggest that the government as a whole has any victory-at-all-cost attitude in general; as noted, its mentioned there are other allies, and when they decide to peel the Skinnies off, they do it in a fairly measured way.


Not Woke until I’ve had my Coffee
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Which is rather irrelevant to the "Malthusian musings" in question, which make substantial assertions that do not depend on the existence or nature of the bugs.
Population control (and a state that licenses childbirth) crops up in a lot of sci-fi from the period.


Wandering stranger
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Population control (and a state that licenses childbirth) crops up in a lot of sci-fi from the period.
Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison (which the movie Soylent Green is based on) is probably one of the better known ones.

On the other hand, you get the massive arcologies of Asimov' Caves of Steel because the world population has ballooned up to 8 billion people and can no longer be fed with conventional architecture. For all their imagination, sometimes they got their perspective of scale quite wrong. See also Trantor.
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