Starship Troopers

by Robert A. Heinlein
Reviewed date: 2007 Mar 26
Rating: 5
363 pages
Awards: 1960 Hugo
cover art

I first read Starship Troopers in 1997 (or early 1998) after watching the Paul Verhoeven film based on Heinlein's novel. I was hesitant to reread it, for fear it would not stand up to my recollection. That has happened before: John Brunner's The Crucible of Time and Alan Dean Foster's Nor Crystal Tears were not half so good upon rereading as I remembered them. Not so with Starship Troopers. It remains one of my favorite books.

I'm a fan of the film version as well, but the tone and message of Verhoeven's adaptation is quite unlike the book. Both share the same basic plot: in the 22nd century, Johnnie Rico signs up for Federal Service. He is assigned to the Mobile Infantry, shipped off to boot camp and made into a man, then fights the enemy Bugs that threaten mankind across the galaxy.

Totalitarian: In the movie, the Federation is militaristic and totalitarian. Citizenship is only given to combat veterans, political office is de facto limited to citizens, and the people's basic human rights are heavily restricted: even having babies is licensed and regulated. In Heinlein's book, the government is generally libertarian; individual rights are not violated. The right to vote is given only to those who have served in the Federal Service, but every person has the right to serve his time, and not all serve in combat capacity.

Militarism: Verhoeven's movie paints the Federation as a militaristic machine; it is implied that humans are the aggressors in the Bug War, invading the territory of the Bugs. The powers-that-be run the war from their grand hall in Geneva, and when hundreds of thousands of soldiers die, the leaders suffer nothing except loss of prestige: Sky Marshall Diennes is made a scapegoat and resigns. The precise reasons for war are less clear in Heinlein's book, but it is surely no act of a corrupt leadership: General Diennes fights alongside his men, as all Mobile Infantry officers do, and he is killed when the Federation loses the battle. In Heinlein's Federation, the leaders suffer when they send soldiers into combat.

Power vs. Responsibility: The movie shows a society where naked power rules. Those with power inflict it needlessly and with cruelty: during a hand-to-hand combat exercise, drill instructor Zim intentionally breaks a recruit's arm while he lies helpless on the ground. In combat, Lt. Rasczak declines to rescue his own soldier; instead, he grabs a sniper rifle and shoots the man dead, to put him out of his misery. Heinlein takes care to show a society where those with power use it responsibly: drill instructor Zim never abuses his power. When one of his recruits washes out, Zim views it as his own failure to provide adequate leadership and oversight. In combat, the Mobile Infantry never leave a man behind, and the Lieutenant risks his life time and again in rescue attempts.

Heinlein makes his point more explicitly when Johnnie Rico goes to Officer Candidate School, where he discusses power and responsiblity with his teacher.

Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal--else a balancing takes place as surely as current flows between points of unequal potential. To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster.

Revenge or Civic Duty?: Movie version Rico joins the MI to impress his girlfriend; he stays in the MI to get revenge after the Bugs destroy Buenos Aires. He becomes an officer when his friend Carl promotes him on the spur of the moment. Book version Rico joins for more complex reasons that he doesn't fully understand; he stays in MI because he begins to understand what it means to be willing to fight and die for his home and country. When he decides to become an officer, he attends a rigorous Office Candidate School (OCS) where he learns how to use force and authority responsibly.

Starship Troopers the movie is a good action B-movie, but it doesn't give an accurate impression of the book. Starship Troopers the book rates a five.

For a more detailed discussion of the book and the movie, see ChrisW's Thoughts on Starship Troopers.

Johnnie Rico's MI platoon travels on the Navy ship Rodger Young, named for an infantryman who gave his life to save his platoon from a Japanese ambush on New Georgia. Lyrics and a recording of the "Ballad of Rodger Young" are at West Point Songs

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