Wednesday, February 23, 2011

1960: Starship Troopers

The first thing I want you to do is forget about the Starship Trooper movie. Forget about how the bug aliens were portrayed, forget about the stupid Devo helmets, and forget about that annoying red-headed chick Dizzy Flores (who in the book was a guy and died in the first chapter).

Now that that is out of the way let’s talk about Starship Troopers the novel by Robert Heinlein. This is the first Hugo Award winner I have come to in the course of writing this blog that I have read before. I read it before I went to war myself, which seems oddly fitting. Granted I didn’t have the awesome power armor that the soldiers use in the book or wasn’t fighting alien bugs but more on that later.

Like the previous Heinlein Hugo winner, Double Star, Starship Troopers is told in the first person. The narrator is Johnny Rico, a kid from an upper crust family in Buenos Aires, who joins the Mobile Infantry so he can become a citizen. In the Terran Federation, people must do a few years of government service before they can become citizens. Non-citizens cannot vote or hold office. That’s interesting is that service does not just have to be the military. Joining and serving in a civilian capacity is equally valid.

While in training, the Bugs (an insect type alien) attack and destroy Buenos Aires. It is never completely clear why this happens. Rico does not seem to think it is that important so it doesn’t come up. After finishing a brutal one year training course, Rico is part of the attack on the Bug home world of Klendathu. The attack is a disaster and the Federation is reduced to making hit and run attacks. I won’t go through the rest of the plot here but I will say that it is a lot more about Rico’s time in the military and becoming an officer then it is about winning the war against the Bugs. There are only a handful of battles in book and they are mostly at the beginning and the end of the novel.

But the battles are action packed and fun to read. One of the things that make them much fun is the equipment the Mobile Infantry use. The infantry use power armor that augments their strength, speed, and allows them to operate in any environment. The armor also has jet packs and advanced communication systems. There are multiple channels and the infantryman (in the novel they were all men but there was never a reference that being male was a requirement) bites down on a different button to switch between them. I thought that was a really cool idea. There are also different types of armor for different jobs such as combat engineer. The Mobile Infantry are usually dropped from space in special capsules to make hit and run attacks. Anyone who has played science fiction games or read newer science fiction has seen these elements but this was new when Heinlein wrote it and it has aged very well.

Even though I enjoyed Starship Troopers for the most part, there are some annoying or ridiculous aspects to it. The most famous grip with it is that the book is a vehicle for Heinlein’s ideas. This is, unfortunately, quite true. Large chunks of the novel are devoted to the morality discussions and an ideal more militarized state. 
The problem is most of this does not come up naturally. A number of characters are more talking heads, spewing Heinlein’s philosophy, than they are people. For only 250 pages, I wanted a bit more action and less talking.  

Another problem is that Johnny Rico isn’t a very interesting character. Once he makes the decision to join the Mobile Infantry he becomes annoyingly gung-ho all the time. I used to be in the Army and have certainly met people like that but it doesn’t make them particularly interesting. His attitude is perfectly (and irritatingly) shown when he and his troops are about to be shot down onto a planet and he requests the capsules all play “For the Everlasting Glory of the Infantry”.  Even writing that made my eyes roll. One observation I did like from Rico was about sleeping. He said that the secret to happiness is adequate sleep. You give a grunt a full eight hours and he is the happiest man alive. How true that is.

In the end, Starship Troopers is a good book and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good sci-fi adventure. Oh and stay away from the movie.


  1. I loved the book, but was exposed to the movie first. I enjoy both. Strangely, I recently read that the movie was pitched as something seperate, but they changed the title and just threw in some Starship Trooper characters and quotes when the screenplay was being written. Explains a lot really.

  2. The movie is just a good-old action romp. The director and scriptwriters openly admitted to not reading the book. However, if you've read "Armor" by John Steakley you'll be surprised in much similarity. I scribbled a few notes overs at Worlds Without End: