I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while now and I’m glad I finally took a few days last week to get through it. Starship Troopers is one of the most famous/infamous pieces of 20th century pulp science fiction and has gone a very long way to establishing the style for the entire space marine genre as it exists now in series like Warhammer and Halo. All of the tropes that exist in the genre originate here: power armor, super soldiers, interstellar warfare against hostile alien species, morally dubious governments, etc.
Of course, the book has taken up a new reputation in the time since its publication. Among progressive circles, the book is seen as a piece of proto-fascist, anti-Democratic propaganda.
The most famous critic of the book is the great Paul Verhoeven. His 1997 adaptation of the book follows the lose outline of the story only to serve as a scathing indigent of militarism, cycles of violence and fascist propaganda in popular fiction. It’s also one of the greatest works of auteur genre cinema from one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century (see also: Robocop, Total Recall, Elle, etc.).
Famously though, Verhoeven didn’t read the entire book. He read the early chapters and was so disgusted by the book’s “fascistic” attitudes that he hired Robocop screenwriter Edward Neumeier to write the script.
It’s generally considered, by fans of the book, that the film adaptation completely misses the point of Robert Heinlein’s story. Sargon of Akkad did an excellent hour long breakdown on the philosophy of the book that I highly recommend.
Regardless, I genuinely love the movie! I still wanted to eventually get to the book though. I wasn’t expecting going into the book that I would find it as gripping as I did. Alas, I finished the book in three days. I was completely gripped by it and surprised by how philosophical and wise its understanding of human nature and politics actually was.
Take my word when I say that I don’t identify as a fascist and don’t particularly like the association. When I say that it’s genuinely intelligent, I mean it.
Heinlein’s work is definitely more of a work of speculative philosophy than an action story as many of his followers in the genre have embraced. There are a handful of action scenes and they’re among the most dull chapters in the book. His description of how the character’s power armor works is more gripping than the battle scenes were.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the loose framework of the book’s structure. Johnny Rico joins the military because he’s decided he wants to find a way to discover who he is as an adult man. The book then extensively describes his grueling experience at boot camp, the beginning of the Human-Arachnid War and what the early months and years of the conflict looks like from the perspective of a foot soldier.
His mother dies when the aliens lay siege to Buenos Aires. The humans eventually capture an alien brain. By the end of the story, the war has yet to resolve and appears to be enduring for a long time. Beyond these similarities though, the stories and philosophies diverge radically.
For one, the tone is radically different. Verhoeven’s film has an overt gloss of ironic mid-tier movie magic hanging over it as though the entire film were being made ironically. It all looks fake and it visibly feels manipulative. That’s the point of course. This is supposed to be a fake propaganda movie set in the universe of the story.
The book of Starship Troopers has no sense of irony. It is a straightly told science fiction narrative from start to finish. The book makes no reservations about its morally realist view of human nature, conflict and civil rights.
The famous gimmick of the entire series is that military service, or some near equivalent, is the only way civilians can gain the right to vote and full citizenship. The majority of people don’t bother. They go about their lives and have full constitutional rights regardless of their lack of representation. Politics is actually treated as a disgusting and lowly thing in the future as most people consider it below their station.
Voting isn’t even a major theme of the book. Neither is politics. We never see how the political system in this world works or what kind of people are chosen to represent humanity. Johnny Rico doesn’t even necessarily join the military because he wants the right to vote.
As we find out in the novel, Johnny just wants to prove himself as an independent man within his society. Johnny’s is a child of immense inter generational wealth and has the opportunity at the beginning of the story to goto Harvard and become a career businessman. His prosperity could be handed to him on a silver platter.
Instead, Johnny goes to the recruiting office for the military despite being discouraged by his parents AND the recruiting officer that it’s a bad idea. This decision has nothing to do with getting something back from his society. Rico’s decision has everything to do with the fact that he wants to prove to himself that he’s his own man.
Even the movie’s inciting incident with the bombing of Buenos Aires hardly factors into the emotional stakes of the plot. Rico’s mother dies like she does in the film but he’s already determined to do his job and didn’t need to be coaxed back into the military. By the time the Bug War starts, Rico is a fully functioning super soldier who is prepared to go off to battle without fear.
So why are veterans there only people in this society that are allowed to vote? As the book would suggest, it’s because they’re the only people who know what it’s worth. Joining the military is a deeply painful and exhausting process designed to cut the wheat from the chaff. People are actually discouraged from joining the military at recruiting offices because of how painful and dangerous it is. Once a person has joined the military, there’s nothing stopping them from requesting an honorable discharge at any point. The military doesn’t court martial people who want to quit.
If anything, the military in this universe wants to kick out the wimps and posers. The process is designed top to bottom to weed out people who aren’t virtuous enough to put the public good ahead of themselves. Thus why veterans are the best source of voters. Veterans know how hard it is to protect a society so they will, mostly, put society’s needs first.
The result is seemingly a society that has transcended most of the run of the mill problems we currently face. Poverty has declined. Murder rates and robbery have declined. Kids play in parks after dark without fear. The streets are mostly peaceful. Society is run so well that there’s almost universal prosperity among the Terran Empire.
By creating a system where only the virtuous can gain political power, Heinlein suggests that an improved society is possible. It just needs the guts and honesty to weed out the weak and depraved.
The book’s loathing for weakness is one of its major themes. During the book’s long rants on moral philosophy, characters castigate everything from the social workers, to intellectuals and parents who refuse to spank their kids as being responsible for the breakdown of civil society in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The book also LOATHS communism to an intense degree. Outside of some of the length rants dismissing the ideology at its face, the book creates its in-universe avatar of the idea in the Arachnids. The Bugs are thus described as a species perfectly evolved to be communistic. They have a single hive mind and every individual bug solely values the collective interest. When one bug dies, another is hatched.
The book ultimately leaves the question of how Heinlein’s post-liberal Republic can possibly defeat communism open as that would’ve been an open question in the late 1950s. That’s sad as it’s one of a handful of major ideological holes the books contains. By focusing on the soldier’s perspective, the book makes an interesting case for how a society COULD look on the ground but puts little interest in the actual political processes or how such a society would function.
Rico himself says in the book that it’s not his place to question his orders to why the war is being fought. He just knows it’s his job to fight and obey.
One could easily take a look at this instinct for punishment and it’s brutal depiction of militarism and call it proto-fascist but the book would probably more accurately describe itself as post-liberal Utopianism. Heinlein seems to think his system can preserve constitutional rights and a free market without any mechanism for people to hold their leaders accountable.
That said, there’s reason to be skeptical. An unaccountable political body, even one composed of virtuous veterans, likely wouldn’t look dissimilar to the Roman Empire during its more corrupt eras of Assassination, corruption and usurping power grabs.
Like any work of speculative fiction (IE Atlas Shrugged, Communist Manifesto) there are going to be thousands of holes you can stick a pin through. Human nature is complex and our ability to destroy our hard one democracies and liberties seems to be an inevitable fate for societies.
That said, I do think Starship Troopers offers some wisdom. Much like many on the American right who have turned to political realists like Machiavelli and Moldbug to understand the nature of power and political narratives, I think Heinlein’s approach to fostering a virtuous society is something that ought to be heeded.
When 99% percent of our society are addicted to pornography, caffeine, alcohol and other destructive vices, it’s hard to say that we live in a virtuous society. People are sick, bored and depressed. The only thing in life that creates meaning is earned success. A societal movement to encourage virtue and maturity could go a long way to fixing some of the poison floating our civil society at the moment.
I’m obviously not dumb enough to think we live in a time where anything but universal suffrage would be politically palatable. That said, fiction can be a great way to work through the knots of our dogmatic assumptions and to consider why we believe what we believe. Starship Troopers asks us why we think we’re so import to put our desires over the needs of all of society and why we deserve to have a say in how it functions?
That could be a difficult question to answer if we were really honest with ourselves.