STARSHIP TROOPERS – Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

Starship Troopers Jerry RobinsonMuch has been written on this seminal title by one of SF’s most famous authors – especially about the book’s alleged fascism, satirized by the 1997 Paul Verhoeven movie. The Wikipedia article lists 104 references, and has fairly long sections on the themes and their reception.

I don’t feel like writing an in-depth analysis this time, so let me try to break things down in a few short paragraphs. Reading experience first, politics and a bit of ethics second.

Starship Troopers is a rather fast paced military procedural novel. There’s much less action than I expected – especially in comparison to the movie: the novel focuses on the training and promotion of the main character, Juan Rico. There are a few battle scenes, but the bulk of the book focuses on the organization and procedures of Earth’s army.

The first half deals with the training camp, drill sergeant included. It seems Heinlein helped to give rise to the trope – probably best exemplified later in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. As such the story scratches a few primal itches: deep down, it’s fun to read about people being punished for stupidity or insubordination, promoted after showing endurance, etc. It feeds into the remnants of our hierarchical primate mind. It’s not only pleasing, but also very familiar: we all know this story, and have seen multiple iterations of it – in various forms of fiction, and, to a lesser extent maybe, during our own schooling.

There’s surprisingly little violence in the book, but, yes, aliens are killed without remorse. I’ve written at length about the ethics of enjoying fictional violence, and this book doesn’t even need that defense. I’ve also written about how Haldeman’s The Forever War fails to be an anti-war book: similarly, Heinlein doesn’t pay much attention to the victims – the crucial difference being that he didn’t try to write an anti-war book to begin with.

Heinlein’s prose is solid, easy, supple. That seems simple, but it isn’t: credit where credit is due.

The pacing is generally excellent. There are some explicitly political sections in the book, but one is too long, and a bit of a rant. Another section that overstays its welcome explains the chain of command in a military organization. Both appear in the second half of the book, and add to the general feeling that Heinlein’d better come up with a cool space battle soon!

Just two parts that drag a bit, that’s not too bad. The book is still very, very readable for sci fi published in 1959. The only part that truly feels dated is a rant about the moral decline of society because youngsters aren’t subjected to corporal punishment anymore. There’s also a shoddy section about evolution that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have written today.

Starship Troopers is easily recommended to anyone that enjoys military procedure. If you have a serious interest in the history of science fiction, either you’ve already read it, or it’s on your TBR. Even though I liked The Moon is a Harsh Mistress better, I’ll read more Heinlein in the future. Any suggestions about the man’s vast oeuvre are more than welcome in the comments.

One more thing needs stress: Starship Troopers‘ content is not just simple, superficial entertainment. Whatever the reader’s own stance, Heinlein gives the reader more than enough stuff about morals and politics to ponder. So let’s look at that a bit – briefly, I promise.

For all the accusations of fascism, there’s some surprising progressive stuff too. There’s no nationalism in the book: there’s one planetary federation, and people from all over the world join the military. The main character isn’t white, and Heinlein only discloses this near the end – a nice trick to expose latent racism.

But yes, this book kinda glorifies the military. Is that fascism? I don’t think so. There’s still a form of democracy – no universal suffrage, true, but it’s a long way from a political system with an absolute ruler at the top. It’s to Heinlein’s credit that he’s willing to think about alternatives to universal suffrage for adults, even though his proposed solution is not something I agree with. With this story Heinlein seemed to want to stimulate political debate, and that hardly seems like a fascist tendency to me. (See here for an interesting discussion about the link to Plato’s Republic.)

Heinlein’s future Earth is rather utopian. War on the planet itself has disappeared. The reasons for the war with the aliens aren’t really explained – except for some Lebensraum-ish justification, which might sound problematic if you put it like that, but ecological population pressure is a real issue, so that’s not necessarily inherently fascist either. It is left unclear who started the war, so one would have a hard case arguing Heinlein advocates extra-solar system predatory imperialism.

As for the accusations of racism and dehumanizing the enemy because humans call them “Bugs” or “Skinnies”, well, that seems like overstretching the term ‘racism’. The aliens are in fact insectoid & very, very difficult to communicate with. It’s common practice for humans to nickname & dehumanize enemies. As such, Heinlein’s choices reflect a form of realism, rather than him propagating racism or the boundless killing of other real world humans.

It should be noted the aliens clearly threaten Earth, so even if humanity did provoke the war – again, that’s left unclear – that what is described in the novel can be read as a valid defensive reaction, and not as some glorification of violence for the sake of violence that doesn’t care about human suffering. I’d say that anybody who’s not a vegetarian but has moral problems with this book on this account, should do some serious soul searching.

Realism is Heinlein’s strongest suit. While admittedly there’s dreamy political Idealism in the story’s world building, Heinlein repeatedly shows he understands reality as reality: impersonal.

Correct morals arise from knowing what man is – not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be. The universe will let us know – later – whether or not Man has any “right” to expand through it.

While the first part – “what man is” – is up for debate, and as such only pretends to be an objective validation of Heinlein’s stances, the second part is what I want to acknowledge: there are no a priori rights in the universe. ‘Rights’ are a human concept, not a Natural Law. Existence doesn’t give you rights, other humans do.

In the book’s second course of History and Moral Philosophy, Major Reid claims that all morals come from the instinct to survive above the individual level. As we can hardly survive without cooperation, that might not be too far from what Michael Tomasello‘s research has found: “the basic architecture of human moral psychology—holding ourselves responsible for our actions, feeling that we owe things to others, and that others owe things to us—evolved to make us better collaborators.”

For all the talk of personal responsibility and moral choices, it’s hilarious that Juan enlists on a whim, because of a sexual reflex. I guess Heinlein set it up so that he could slowly sculpt Johnny throughout the story, letting the character slowly internalize the military Ethos. At the same time, it also points at the weakness of any morality that hinges on personal choice and individual responsibility: as if soldiers could learn 100% self-control after a few months of camp training or even active duty service.

To end, another amusing paradox. McCarthyist propaganda of the Second Red Scare clearly had an effect on Heinlein – a Navy man himself during the end of the 1920 and the 1930s, and as such maybe more susceptible to the pervading American nationalist rhetoric. For all the anti-communist subtext in Starship Troopers – the bugs seemingly the ultimate simile for an ultra cooperative social group – it is worth noting that Heinlein’s ideal of military Citizenship “is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part . . . and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.” Not too different from the root of Bolshevism, I’d say.

Starship Troopers Karel Thole

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38 responses to “STARSHIP TROOPERS – Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

  1. I’ve read it a long time ago, but the book never stuck in my mind. It is like I moved through the pages and then moved out, and never thought of it again, and never read another Heinlein again. *shrugs shoulders* Maybe it was just too darn prototypical for the genre. I do remember The Forever War and Old Man’s War, both of which I liked more.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The book provokes. Which is good because it kept me thinking far longer than the quite short read.
    For a book of that age it is still relevant and readable, enjoyable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love reading about Starship Troopers, for me it’s a book that makes everyone reveal a bit about themselves 😀

    For me, Starship Troopers was an American version of Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in space. What I mean by it is that in effect Starship Troopers in Heinlein’s version of Bildungsroman. It was for me a very illuminating book, showcasing a uniquely American attitude toward patriotism and military duty. But then, that’s a topic that’s been the subject of my research for the last decade 😉 It’s a very republican Rome stance, when you take a closer look at it, and one that shaped the vast majority of American political thought. And indeed, the recurring accusation of fascism is also nothing new with regards to American political thought, despite the rampant individualism: there is a deep undercurrent of respect for power/authority based on power in American culture, and power is defined more physically than psychologically/mentally – I mean, even Star Wars are being accused of fascism by some of the left 😀

    Btw, I absolutely loved Moon is a Harsh Mistress, despite Heinlein’s penchant for over-explaining the variety of sexual/familial relationships 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • I never finished The Magic Mountain. I have it on my shelve, we had to read it for a course at uni, but I never did. I tried again a year or two ago, but the prose bugs me. Maybe it’s the translation, I don’t know. But even so, it seems too intellectual in a heavy-handed, almost dated kind of way for my tastes today. And besides, I never was too keen on that kind of modernist literature, too pompous.

      More or less agreed on all your points – but I was surprised by the human face the officers showed in multiple cases. I would say Heinlein’s portrait of the military is so that they could only be good leaders if they show compassion & psychological insight too.

      I’m also not sure whether his approach is uniquely American. Could be, but I can imagine this kind of militarism to be present elsewhere too? What makes it unique?

      I’m obviously also very interested in what you thought this review reveals about me!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, the original is in German, and German is a peculiar language, not easily translated to English in my opinion; for some reason, I much prefer reading German books in Polish 😀
        But I did love Magic Mountain, and even more Doctor Faustus – if you want a literature that depicts a state of mind of its times and culture, there’s probably no one better than Mann.

        Heinlein had a lot of experience as a military man – and it shaped him, and it shows in his books. I think that his unapologetic belief in military as a shaper of souls and bodies is very American, TBH – most of the other militaries are more hesitant in this respect (except for the original Roman Empire, obviously ;)). I think before WWII this approach was much more popular – but afterwards, in most countries there was a reckoning of sorts, with Europe so infatuated with authoritarian regimes in the decades between the two wars, and with the outcome of WWII there was a lot with regards to the military culture that needed serious consideration and critique. US didn’t go through that process, not all the way through, even after Vietnam.

        Well, several things right off the bat: most readers read it through WWII or Vietnam war lens – and depending on which, they either praised or criticized Heinlein. You are not interested in any of the military interpretations, instead applying the lens of biological determinism, which I’d venture to point out is somewhat of your favorite – and to the point, actually. Heinlein was depicting reality, not making utopia, so dehumanization as a part of our reality had to find its place in his world. I’d also say that your review abstains from taking a political stance, which is significant as this novel actually invites discussion in these matters. I’d have probably give in to this temptation, but then that’s my research topic 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s very interesting, thanks, it hadn’t occurred to me, WW2 as a turning point – the USA has hardly seen violence on its soil first hand, that might make for an imperialistic mindset – like Rome indeed.

          As for not taking a political stance: I think I do (Heinlein is not a fascists, etc.) but I get what you mean, I don’t formulate an opinion on voting rights. Overall, I’d say that if you want to know the opinion of the people, asking all of them isn’t a bad idea. But how to ask and what to do with that information is more complex. In general, I think that a form of proportional representative democracy is the better system than the first past the post system, which tends to lead to polarization, while the essence of politics to me is cooperation and bridging differences.

          As for my political opinions, I tend to be less outspoken these days. I want this blog to be welcoming to all. Lots of online platforms are toxic these days, and I don’t like to dismiss any opinion out of hand, on principle. I’ve learned that most people from across the spectrum (from extreme right to extreme left) are decent folk that might differ in perspective, but generally want the same thing: a better society. I think to have fruitful conversations with the Other, it’s better not to shout.


    • Goodness, I‘d never seen a reference to Zauberberg, but you have a point. I need to reread that one. If you can, read the original German, the translation is said to be crap.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It would take me at least thrice the time to read it in German. As the Dutch translation didn’t work for me, maybe the English translation might do, but I’m guessing you’re talking about that one to be crap.


      • Exactly!
        I could recommend the Polish translation, but since even less people speak/read Polish than German it’s not a big help, I’m afraid 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    • Coincidentally, I’ve recently made a comment on Bookstooge’s or Wakisashi’s blog that the nicest reviews to read are the ones of books you’ve read yourself by reviewers you know fairly well 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the variety of covers that this book has had. My favorite tends to be this one: (probably because it’s the one I read in college)

    I put this in with Heinlein’s juvenile fiction because it lacks that knife in the back and twist attitude that I found in his adult books. It’s definitely JUST for kids but I could see a young highschooler eating this up. I wish I had recommendations for his juvie stuff, but it has been long enough since I’ve read them that I don’t trust my memories. I think I gave most of his stuff 3stars back in ’04/05. I do remember enjoying Citizen of the Galaxy, but I couldn’t tell you why. Red Planet got 2 stars, as did The Menace from Earth.

    Personally, I’d love to see some sort of “earn your citizenship rights” here in the USA. I know it won’t happen, but I can dream 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oops. I meant “definitely not JUST for kids” .

      Liked by 1 person

    • Great cover indeed. Reminds me of a GI Joe figurine. I had fun picking the images, I tend to limit those, I picked the one at the end because it’s both goofy and a sign of the times, and the promo line at the bottom gives a nice bit of info too.

      Lots of sources have this as the first serious Heinlein, but you are right, it has juvie aspects too. It’s a bit of both the way I see it, transitional.

      I’ll check out Citizen of the Galaxy, thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting post. I’ve seen the movie (who hasn’t, right?) a couple of times, and I find it quite entertaining, but didn’t know much about the book. I might read it some day, it does sound interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really different I have to say. I saw the movie in theatre when it came out and one time on dvd, I liked it a lot too at the time. Not sure if it would hold up today. Either way, it would be interesting to watch after I’ve read the book. It’s interesting that in his attempt to satirize the fascism, Verhoeven whitewashed two important characters.


  6. Ricardo Bastardo

    Well he was ab-so-lu-te-ly right about the impact of corporeal punishment on the decline of society. Misbehaving young people do deserve to get smacked sometimes. Would be a lot less anti-social behavior if school teachers were still allowed to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ricardo Bastardo

      The impact of *abolishing* corporeal punishment, of course. Bring it back & solve the problem of delinquent youth!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha! I’m not sure which data set you base your conclusions on. Youth is overall less delinquent than it used to be. Crime stats are down in most countries.

        It’s interesting that countries with least corporeal punishment have shown no increase in youth delinquency. Sweden is a case in point: “Contrary to expectations of an increase of juvenile delinquency following the ban of corporal punishment, youth crime remained steady while theft convictions and suspects in narcotics crimes among Swedish youth significantly decreased; youth drug and alcohol use and youth suicide also decreased. Durrant writes: “While drawing a direct causal link between the corporal punishment ban and any of these social trends would be too simplistic, the evidence presented here indicates that the ban has not had negative effects”.”

        I agree though: we shouldn’t be to soft in youngsters. But discipline and physical punishment are not necessarily the same.

        I appreciate your strong intuition, but scientific research has shown time and time again that “while corporal punishment may lead to immediate compliance, researchers have found that the changes in behavior may only be short-term. In fact, studies consistently show that over the long-term, corporal punishment is ineffective and may even cause behavior problems to worsen over time.”

        As a parent, giving the right example is paramount. Showing kids violence is a way to solve problems, only shows them violence is a valid strategy to use themselves.

        Educate yourself on the matter, I’d say! The Wikipedia page is a good place to start, with tons of references to peer-reviewed studies.

        At your service!


  7. I picked up this book as a sci/fi classics hardcover for cheap after my three day work weekend at Rock Wertcher last year. Still have to give it a read. Great review Man

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s amazing how much I remember of this book despite having read it a few decades ago, although I never felt the need to re-read it as it happened instead with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: military SF was never really my cup of tea, and as far as future developments in social mores I found the Moon colony’s structure much more interesting. Still, the mental growth Johnny undergoes here remains fascinating, and the way he transforms from a somewhat pampered boy into an adult makes for an interesting journey.
    As usual, your review touches on some themes that make a re-read practically mandatory 😉 and I don’t rule out that possibility in the near future.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me the transformation itself was rather generic/predictable I have to say, but I do agree all the lessons and the political world building that mayde the transformation happen are the main interest of this novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve always thought this was a great novel, and of course a very influential one, as it’s the first of a very specific type of SF military fiction. The prose also has a special zip to it – that opening line is great – and rolls off the tongue well, and much of the hardware is still cool (bouncing armored suits, infantry casually shooting nuclear bombs!).

    It’s also a great piece of science fictional world-building, which quickly and efficiently sketches a militaristic society.

    But IMO Verhoeven’s movie was right to call out this society as fascistic.

    Heinlein became pretty right wing as he got older, and it’s hard not to view “Troopers'” society (a kind of libertarian fascism) with skepticism and disgust, albeit a sexy kind of disgust, which Verhoeven captures well (the appeal of fetishized fascism).

    But the novel buys into its premise wholesale, and it offers a legitimate and believable look at a philosophical/political position, a position which it admirably attempts to model. And I think that’s what good SF does.

    It’s probably the only novel whose values i hate that I’d rank as “great”, because it’s always come across to me as an interesting thought experiment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess it all depends on once definition of fascism, but I understand your reasonings.

      As for the thought experiment, now that some time has passed since I read it, I think the experiment is a bit moot, in the sense that the society Heinlein described is more or less utopian, without nation states, and as such there’s isn’t much politics needed anymore – just a governing organ to keep the status quo. In that sense it doesn’t really matter who votes or not. But how to get to such a society is another matter indeed, and to install such a voting system today would be foolish imo – you’d get a fairly one sided view in parliaments, and I think the essence of democratic politics is cooperation, compromise between different viewpoints.


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