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Starship Troopers: Interpretation and Analysis


Trying to be a bird
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I have to couch all of this in that, to be honest, I have no flipping clue what his worldview actually was, and its probably a fool's errand to try to glean it from his books because of his writing style. He presumably say, wrote characters he didn't agree with occasionally. But what I do know of it suggests that Vietnam would've been a lot more threatening to his worldview in a way that no other conflict the U.S. had been in... in its history, much less his lifetime, could've been.
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. :)

4th of Eleven

Active member
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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.
As I said in the other thread, Heinlein was writing during the height of the civil rights movement; to be arguing in favor of a 'limited franchise' at that time in the United States without thinking about what that meant in the real world at that time goes beyond simply being naive into some level of willful blindness. Curiously, it seems he doesn't seem to ever sugest limiting the franchise to people who actually know what the hell they're talking about...


Validated User
I guess this place is as good as any to ask- I've often heard that the civilian service pathway wasn't in the original text, but was added in later books, revisions, or statements. Is that correct?


Mad Scientist
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The bugs are apparently at the other end of the galaxy. How do they interfere with human colonisation? Are all nice planets in their corner of the galaxy? Have the humans already colonised all other suitable planets in the galaxy? We never see any of that. And that authoritarian government? Humanity seems to be doing pretty well under it. Maybe all of that is untrue, but if so, we don't see any of it. There's reading between the lines, and there's making a whole bunch of assumptions not backed up by the film, and this is the latter.
You don't have a lot of choice about making a whole bunch of assumptions not backed up by the film, because the film doesn't worldbuild particularly and is very difficult to reconcile with any sort of reality-driven inference.


После нас - тишина
Staff member
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Its just, it seems like Vietnam would've been a huge threat to his worldview, because the Communists there arguably had the moral high ground, and the U.S. military's approach, outside of it not being a volunteer force, would seem to fit with what he would want, i.e., maximum force and all.
You might be surprised at how many interpret the Vietnam war in very different terms.

"We won every battle," etc.


Validated User
You don't have a lot of choice about making a whole bunch of assumptions not backed up by the film, because the film doesn't worldbuild particularly and is very difficult to reconcile with any sort of reality-driven inference.
Looking at the way the right talks about history, that may have been intentional, or maybe just accidentally kinda brilliant.


GAIA subsystem
RPGnet Member
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You have to realize that the Starship Troopers movie is basically Verhoeven trying to show Americans how their country looks to us Dutch people. Not the US as it really is (and it's obviously heightened and satirized for an American audience) but the impression it makes (or made in the 1990s) in media and the news as seen from the outside.


RPGnet Member
Validated User
I guess this place is as good as any to ask- I've often heard that the civilian service pathway wasn't in the original text, but was added in later books, revisions, or statements. Is that correct?
I don't think so. However, the novel was initially published in abridged form as "Starship Soldier" in Fantasy & Science Fiction. I suspect the abridgment might have left out a lot of the discussions about Federal Service.

There is an impression among some reviewers that the F&SF novella was written first and then expanded to a novel, but the history is the other way around -- Heinlein wrote the draft novel first, Scribner passed on it, then the abridged version was published in F&SF, and Putnam subsequently published an edited version of the original novel.


RPGnet Member
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PS: In looking for a source that describes the actual textual differences between "Starship Soldier" and Starship Troopers (no luck on that front, BTW), I cam across a really interesting page with a collection of letters about the story from various well-known authors and fans/critics that were published in The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies, a sort of limited circulation pro fanzine where authors and critics could exchange letters on various topics, including the latest books, editors, politics, and how the heck to make a living writing SF.



Does the math.
Validated User
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.
How much of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein have you actually read?
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