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Starship Troopers: Interpretation and Analysis

AliasiSudonomo

Trying to be a bird
Validated User
I won't deal with the movie, since I've alredy established I'm not much of a fan.

As for the book? I feel like Heinlein's tendency toward adopting first person narrative is one reason people miss the clearly stated principles of the setting. WW3 has happened, but either not at a MAD total-destruction level, or many years afterwards when things have recovered. The current government was largely built by the veterans of the big war coming home, establishing order in the lack of any existing structure, and (let's remember this was a big thing for Heinlein; he had a number of stories about establishing international agencies to control and restrict nuclear weapons) over time establishing a world government to keep another big war from happening.... so already the "let's fight a Forever War!" idea falls. It is not, on the whole, a pro-war text. It is a pro-military text, but "The Man Who Was Too Lazy To Fail" hits closer to directly stating RAH's beliefs. Those could be summarized as "the job of the military is to look fierce and discourage anyone else from picking a fight. While it should be capable of fighting a war, if it comes to actually fighting a war something has gone wrong," or so has been my long impression.

But while one can hold very real doubt over the long-term stability of the Terran Federation as presented, it's also known peace for so long it's military is not very popular at home and there's even calls for its dismantlement, at the beginning. As it is, the majority of Service paths are not directly soldiering ones, but terraforming, scientific research, and the like. The requirement is "it's probably not going to be pleasant", and "you don't get to pick, only state a preference".

We follow someone in the MI for a few reasons. The Doylist one is Heinlein wanted to write an ode to the common infantryman at a time the Korean War was still fresh in the mind and he was concerned about Soviet aggression. The Watsonian one is Juan Rico has a bad case of Dunning-Kruger combined with teenaged male machoness. He rules out every non-military job straightaway, then puts every single military job above MI. I'd assume business training might have made him useful in one of the noncombat jobs, but utterly useless for military purposes. "Dumb grunts" are not a thing in the Federal Service, much like modern armies.

As for Johnny's speculations: we should again consider those lengthy class debates he has in History and Moral Philosophy and how much of the stuff people like to call out is refuted in the very text. Johnny comes up with the 'separate the wolves from the sheep' theory, but even that isn't confirmed. The actual line the instructor gives is along the lines of "nobody's sure, but it's worked well so far".

There are some good points of analysis about the novel I fully support, mind you, for all the grousing. One is: the ethics and philosophy stuff is very of its time; I always wondered how Heinlein would react to the news the Soviet Union, the big bad Evil Empire... would collapse without much of a fight. I don't think anyone would have believed that in the 1950s or 60s. A second one is: while references to his culture are made, Johnny doesn't speak like a Filipino, but as a middle class white American. (I think it's a forgivable one given his upper-class business background and the time: Heinlein was not often one for accents in writing, and this was his idea of a cute trick to sneak it past racists. See also Tunnel In the Sky, where the references to the protagonist being black are subtle...but it is an accurate criticism.)


Death of the author and all that, but I've always found it weird people are so eager to attach "fascist" to the man and his work just because of Starship Troopers, and that so many people have apparently only ever read Starship Troopers of his body of work. Sure, it's old SF, but there's a lot of fascinating stuff, some of which appears to directly contradict each other because of that trick of making it seem so personal via first-person narrative. "If This Goes On-", The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.... hell, for someone who was supposed to be an out of touch middle class white guy, I can think of at least two of his books which have "don't mistake the customs of your tribe and your island for laws of nature, other people will do different things and believe different things and that's okay" as one of their central arguments, and that's a lesson we need more than ever, these days.
 

Leonaru

Taxidermic Owlbear
Validated User
Yes? I don't actually see evidence in the film that they do have an empire with communication between planets, only that they can colonise other planets by hurling their spore into space. (Though they do have telepathy, if you want them to have an empire with communication between planets, that's more likely a source for it since it's actually shown on screen)
If we have a species that already has one unrealistic trait (hyperfast telepathic communication), we may as well assume that they have others too. Like a way to hurl boulders through space. But as said before, I doubt the script writers thought about it much, because the bugs aren't supposed to be hard scifi.
 

Litpho

Wandering stranger
RPGnet Member
Validated User
From my experience, people either like Asimov-Clarke or they like Heinlein . . .
I actually like Asimov and Heinlein, but for very different reasons. Heinlein was the better writer, but around his stroke he really, really lost the plot for a while (and one could argue, never got it entirely back). On the other hand, Farnham's Freehold has to be one of the worst books I have ever written by a writer who could write, so it's not just the stroke. That and "I will fear no evil" are contenders for "I want my hours of reading back".
 

s/LaSH

Member
RPGnet Member
Validated User
There are some good points of analysis about the novel I fully support, mind you, for all the grousing. One is: the ethics and philosophy stuff is very of its time; I always wondered how Heinlein would react to the news the Soviet Union, the big bad Evil Empire... would collapse without much of a fight. I don't think anyone would have believed that in the 1950s or 60s.
(Good points about Heinlein's genuine progressiveness, by the way. It's important to remember those; any critique of Starship Troopers-the-book should bear in mind that the author might agree with us, from our privileged position of having more historical experience.)

I think the prior Evil Empire, the actual Fascists, were a kind of anomaly - and one that's still distorting discourse today. The natural way of things, to my mind, is that tyranny burns itself out. And in fact we see this with the Italian Fascists, who were Fascist for about twice as long as the Germans. By the end they were just completely spent and ready for something else. (Parenthetical aside about that time my grandfather took 300 prisoners in North Africa, alone and unarmed. It's not because he was a badass.) The Nazis in Germany refused to surrender, and so needed to be fully occupied, and that was weird. But because it formed the capstone to the last World War, it forms the most vivid exemplar of the end of a conflict. There must be an all-out conflict, and it must end with troops marching in the streets of the enemy capitol. This is weird. But people expect it to happen, and are surprised when their foes just kind of crumble - or don't crumble at all, and keep fighting well after the bell has rung and everybody's supposed to go inside. (See: All the wars that the US lost after WWII.)

Not that anything is truly that simple. Anomalies happen. But I suspect the natural state of things is much less confrontational than Heinlein predicted.
 

4th of Eleven

Active member
Validated User
Which means Rico's desultorey hope for peace is in vain; the war between the humans and Bugs will be, MUST be genocidal. Which means some time after the Bugs are gone and their planets colonized, the humans will look at the Skinnys and say "Say, nice planets you have there... "

Hey, I think we may have a reason why the Skinnys allied with the Bugs...
It also justifies the Bugs launching a pre-emptive strike on humanity; you cannot live in peace with a nation that believes it will always need more liebestraum - sooner or later, the Bugs were going to end up on the chopping board.

(There's probably room for a sequel where the interstellar community finally has enough of Earth's bullshit and launches a campaign to crush the Federation, liberate the Skinnies, and generally restructure human culture so it can once again actually live peacefully with its neighbors...)
 

Lenin

Tolerant Ent
Validated User
The Nazis in Germany refused to surrender, and so needed to be fully occupied,
Not only the Germans, but Japan. I was reading recently about their preparations for Operation Olympic, the entirely predictable US invasion; so predictable they correctly anticipated the American landing zones and their operational plans for the invasion, and prepared accordingly.

We've all heard about the Japanese plans to turn every civilian into a kamikaze warrior armed with a satchel charge and a spear, which is scary enough, but the government had additional infantry divisions mobilised for homeland defence that US military intelligence knew nothing about, as well as cheap kamikaze planes ready to hurl themselves at the invading shipping; all with the aim of drawing America into an early emulation of Vietnam, except with WW2 levels of mobilization and casualties, intending to wear away at the US will to fight and get a negotiated peace.

When I read about that level of total commitment to total war, I'm torn between amazement that Japan embraced the peace imposed on them with the atomic bomb so enthusiastically, and going, Well, of course they did, who wouldn't take the opportunity to not throw their lives away for the sake of a military dictatorship?
 

Quantum Bob

Fear and Loathing
RPGnet Member
Validated User
It also justifies the Bugs launching a pre-emptive strike on humanity; you cannot live in peace with a nation that believes it will always need more liebestraum - sooner or later, the Bugs were going to end up on the chopping board.
I think you meant Lebensraum? (Or were you making a joke / reference?)
 

Killer300

Registered User
Validated User
I have been thinking about the "Big Three" lately, Clarke-Asimov-Heinlein, who together with editors like John W. Campbell more or less invented the genre of science fiction. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were the progenitors, but the Big Three set the format.

Let's start with this position: a lot of SF readers don't like Starship Troopers. A lot of people do, but it's a book that galvanizes opinion, in the way that, say, The Fountainhead does but A Tale of Two Cities does not.

Of the Big Three, Heinlein is the best writer. I mean that in the objective, literary sense . . . more than Clarke or Asimov, Heinlein's stories had stronger characterization, better developed themes, and just plain better dialogue. That said, Heinlein's works never appealed to me . . . I'm an Asimov fan, though I recognize Asimov's faults as both writer and person. I don't think I'm alone in this opinion. From my experience, people either like Asimov-Clarke or they like Heinlein . . . that's the divide between them, and it may be the root of criticism concerning Starship Troopers.

The book is reactionary in a literal way: Heinlein wrote it in response to a political decision he didn't like concerning military nuclear testing, i.e. it stopped. Heinlein is often called a militarist and proto-fascist. I agree with the former but vehemently disagree with the latter. Heinlein wrote in a free society, and his works explored positive directions in race and individuality . . . he was NOT a fascist, as director Verhoeven would seem to argue otherwise.

While the film is satiric, the book is a straightforward examination of military virtue, arguing that military experience is superior to the civilian and that we're all going to hell in a hand basket if we don't toughen up. One may disagree with that argument (I do); but it's a well-wrought argument nonetheless, written in a thematic style neither Clarke nor Asimov could ever independently achieve in their own works. It's the idea many readers don't like, the pro-militarism. People either like Clarke-Asimov because their works tended not to laud the virtues of the military and being "tough" - they were pure idea men - or they like Heinlein because he does laud military virtue and toughness - Heinlein is a pragmatist.

So, my take is that Starship Troopers gets a lot of flack because of personal political leanings. I don't think it's as simple as leftwing and rightwing, liberal vs. conservative; rather, some people are pro-military, others are pro-peace, and the majority are neither here nor there and just looking for a good story. Starship Troopers is a good story, and the most vocal critics against the book wish it weren't because they don't like what it says.
Although does the Big Three inventing sci-fi apply outside of the United States and Europe? I imagine Japan had a rather different history for how science fiction became popularized, spread, ect. I'm pushing back some here because of them, I'm not sure I like any of the Big Three, as you put it. I had a lot of ideological issues with Starship Troopers, and while I like the ideas behind I, Robot, I suspect Asimov's writing issues would alienate me from him, depending. I haven't read enough Verne to be sure about him, but...

Well, I remember reading an essay that was published around the time the first Star Wars came out that was essentially attacking how reactionary sci-fi was, and I think that's influenced a lot of how I view sci-fi at the time in general. I like some of H.G. Wells, and of proto sci-fi, I mean, none of us would be here without Frankenstein. To put things another way, I suspect I like sci-fi either in its proto-stage, or after the Big Three were brutally deconstructed, but I'm not sure I like what came in between.

With all that said, I think Starship Troopers itself, while I very much disagree with it ideologically, is indeed well written. I actually hold up the book as a contrast against say, Atlas Shrugged, because it proves you can write a good book without everyone agreeing with its ideological message.
 
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Killer300

Registered User
Validated User
(Good points about Heinlein's genuine progressiveness, by the way. It's important to remember those; any critique of Starship Troopers-the-book should bear in mind that the author might agree with us, from our privileged position of having more historical experience.)

I think the prior Evil Empire, the actual Fascists, were a kind of anomaly - and one that's still distorting discourse today. The natural way of things, to my mind, is that tyranny burns itself out. And in fact we see this with the Italian Fascists, who were Fascist for about twice as long as the Germans. By the end they were just completely spent and ready for something else. (Parenthetical aside about that time my grandfather took 300 prisoners in North Africa, alone and unarmed. It's not because he was a badass.) The Nazis in Germany refused to surrender, and so needed to be fully occupied, and that was weird. But because it formed the capstone to the last World War, it forms the most vivid exemplar of the end of a conflict. There must be an all-out conflict, and it must end with troops marching in the streets of the enemy capitol. This is weird. But people expect it to happen, and are surprised when their foes just kind of crumble - or don't crumble at all, and keep fighting well after the bell has rung and everybody's supposed to go inside. (See: All the wars that the US lost after WWII.)

Not that anything is truly that simple. Anomalies happen. But I suspect the natural state of things is much less confrontational than Heinlein predicted.
Much before that, I'm really curious what would happen if you interviewed Heinlein in say, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, about how his thoughts had changed in the aftermath of a brutal grinding attrition war. The reason I say that is I think the society he depicts in Starship Troopers would get smashed against a tree, and otherwise crushed, by an attrition war, because its politics would collapse. He would obviously still be in favor of a volunteer force, but, I think Vietnam would give the middle finger to the idea that a powerful conventional force would be enough, and that occupation wars wouldn't be necessary. Which matters because I just don't buy the society he writes there would function in a long, grinding attrition war against an enemy that refused to give it a conventional fight.

The Forever War does deconstruct the book I realize, but we didn't see Heinlein react to the Vietnam War himself, but I suspect it would've made him question his ideological views on quite a few things.

As for tyranny burning itself out, I'd say that's broadly true, even though current times make me hesitate with that. History seems to suggest nothing, good or bad, is permanent.
 
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AliasiSudonomo

Trying to be a bird
Validated User
I think the prior Evil Empire, the actual Fascists, were a kind of anomaly - and one that's still distorting discourse today. The natural way of things, to my mind, is that tyranny burns itself out. And in fact we see this with the Italian Fascists, who were Fascist for about twice as long as the Germans. By the end they were just completely spent and ready for something else. (Parenthetical aside about that time my grandfather took 300 prisoners in North Africa, alone and unarmed. It's not because he was a badass.) The Nazis in Germany refused to surrender, and so needed to be fully occupied, and that was weird. But because it formed the capstone to the last World War, it forms the most vivid exemplar of the end of a conflict. There must be an all-out conflict, and it must end with troops marching in the streets of the enemy capitol. This is weird. But people expect it to happen, and are surprised when their foes just kind of crumble - or don't crumble at all, and keep fighting well after the bell has rung and everybody's supposed to go inside. (See: All the wars that the US lost after WWII.)

Not that anything is truly that simple. Anomalies happen. But I suspect the natural state of things is much less confrontational than Heinlein predicted.
Oh, quite. It's like people predicting the end of history in the 90s. Or, for that matter, the people who are sure that we're sliding towards The Handmaid's Tale right now, irrevocably. It takes time, training, and patience to truly figure out trends, and who knows which unremarkable fact becomes the seed of a huge new thing? Lots of SF predicted the automobile. Not one of them predicted how the accompanying liberation of teenagers and romance might have been a major contributor to the Sexual Revolution.

When I read about that level of total commitment to total war, I'm torn between amazement that Japan embraced the peace imposed on them with the atomic bomb so enthusiastically, and going, Well, of course they did, who wouldn't take the opportunity to not throw their lives away for the sake of a military dictatorship?
The latter is a good bit of it, I suspect. (It probably didn't hurt that the subsequent occupation ultimately led to a Japan where most people were better off, either.)
 
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