BOOK REVIEW: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (The Folio Society Edition)

It is both bizarre and resonant that, in the same year Donald Trump has declared he is going to create a Space Force for planet Earth, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, by many considered one of the all-father texts of military science fiction, should be reprinted. Originally published under the title ‘Starship Soldiers’ in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1959, this novel has remained a politically dividing, morally intriguing, and gloriously entertaining speculative piece for decades, and has spawned not only numerous television and film adaptations, but also a wealth of imitative texts.

Sometimes, we measure reach by the impact a narrative has directly on a culture. But other times, we measure the impact it has on other creators, and the ideologies surrounding narrative, which in turn influences the culture. Starship Troopers is certainly an example of the latter. I don’t know many people who have read the book, or even have seen the significantly more popular 1997 Paul Verhoeven film, but yet the mark it has left on the genre is deeper than we give it credit for. In short, Starship Troopers is about a future human society in which we have stretched the stars to colonise the galaxy via tremendous fleets of spaceships and the MI ‘Mobile Infantry’, an elite cadre of soldiers kitted out with ‘powered armour’. If this is all starting to sound a little familiar, you’d be right. It’s clear Heinlein’s work inspired the grim-dark world of the 41stMillennium. Games Workshop’s iconic franchise depicts a totalitarian future government, the ‘Imperium of Man’, empowered by its use of elite Space Marine soldiers in ‘power armour’. These soldiers are carried through the stars by massive Gothic battlefleets that then drop them down to the planet’s surface in almost exactly the same Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry are deployed. The parallels are impossible to ignore.

005_SSP.jpgIllustration ©2018 Stephen Hickman from The Folio Society edition of Starship Troopers

However, Starship Troopers is anything but grim-dark in tone. In fact, it is surprisingly bright and optimistic. It is closer to a bildungsroman than a gritty space opera, a coming-of-age journey-to-manhood tale that weaves together flashbacks of Johnnie Rico’s training and education with his present-day struggle for survival against the Bugs. Johnnie’s character arc is from an intelligent yet socially irresponsible person to someone who understands the true nature of duty and comradeship. It is precisely this narrative structure that elevates Starship Troopers and also what has been its biggest source of criticism. The training episodes have been viewed by many to be a simple mechanism for Heinlein to convey didactic philosophy. Whilst there is certainly a degree of truth in this, I found Heinlein’s ‘lectures’ (often through the mouthpiece of ‘Dubois’, the veteran who teaches their Moral Philosophy class) to be the most intriguing aspect of the book, even where I disagree with him. In addition, you would be mistaken to assume Heinlein is purely a right-wing propagandist. Yes, Starship Troopers comes across as pro-military, pro-order, pro-state, but also, surprisingly, pro-gender equality, pro-equal opportunity, pro-religious freedom (within the bounds of reason). In fact, in the future society (The Federation) that Heinlein imagines, women alone are encouraged to become space pilots because they are ‘simply better’, having innately better decision-making skills and reaction time than men.

It goes even deeper. There is a brilliant moment three-quarters the way through the book in which Johnnie meets up with Carmen, the women he has secretly loved most of his life (portrayed by the bright-eyed Denise Richards in the original movie), and is – at first – shocked to find that she has shaven off all her hair. This aesthetic transition, however, does not cause him to view her as any less feminine, and on the contrary, he re-evaluates his perceptions of gender. She cuts her hair because of the utility (flying in Zero G is hard when when you have hair in your face), and it is her dedication to her craft, a craft infinitely more technical and intellectual than Johnnie’s, that makes her such an attractive person. Heinlein is leagues ahead of his time here, directly addressing the enforced male-gaze in a subtle yet oddly touching way. Johnnie never does anything about his feelings for Carmen in the book, unlike in the film, where it’s all cheesy smiles at the end. In Heinlein’s original vision, both of them, in fact, abdicate any hope of what we might define as a normal life in service to the state.

frontis_SSP.jpgIllustration ©2018 Stephen Hickman from The Folio Society edition of Starship Troopers

Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film, while a masterpiece in its own right, misses much of the nuance of the original novel. He makes Starship Troopers intoa satire of fascist states, casting aryan, white, blonde, beautiful people in the lead roles to further his point, and it works brilliantly, but the novel itself is not an advocate of fascism to begin with. Johnnie is not an aryan, he is Filipino (Juan Rico is his real name), and the MI is made up of people from all over the world. In fact, Heinlein bizarrely presents us with one of the most utopian and unified visions of future human society I have ever read. The film also makes use of over-the-top violence to contrast with its propaganda-interludes, no doubt highlighting how the lies of the state juxtapose with the realities of war. This is intriguing, almost a reverse of the novel which flits between Johnnie’s excruciating mental and physical training, which make explicit the gravity of war on every level of understanding, and the action sequences, which its undeniable Johnnie seems to enjoy. In the novel, the state is far-more responsible than Johnnie is.

Starship Troopers was, appropriately, a rite of passage for me. I confess that I fell in love with the movie. I watched it far too young as a teenager: the nudity and gore and extravagant futuristic war-scenes blew my adolescent mind. I was surprised, therefore, to find the novel is almost prudish in this regard, shying away from the exact details of the bloody combat, or Johnnie’s inclination for the opposite sex. But then, it is written in first person, from Johnnie’s perspective, and he is seemingly quite a reserved, stoic person, a senior officer who still thinks like a trooper.

As in the film, characters make unexpected yet glorious returns through the novel, and some characters who seem dreadfully important die unceremonious deaths. Such is the way of infantry life. I think that is, above all, what Robert A. Heinlein was trying to do: capture the unique, challenging, sometimes honourable, sometimes appalling, life of a soldier. Even someone like me, however, who believes war to a be a cancer on the human race, found that his writing style and characterisation make it hard not to be taken in by what Wilfred Owen once called the ‘old lie’.

This new Folio edition has been created precisely with all these ideas in mind. It is not just a thing of beauty for beauty’s sake, as that would itself be in contradiction to much of what is put forward in Starship Troopers. Instead, everything from the classic military typeface to the almost diagram-like illustrations by Stephen Hickman are exquisitely appropriate and beautiful in their own way. The etching on the front hardcover is of paratroopers descending, the luminous turquoise-green of the foil again echoing traditional military colours. Each page is edged with silver-green foil too. The whole thing comes together perfectly, like troopers on parade marching in time. To complete the book, there is a tremendous introduction written by Joe Haldeman (author of The Forever War) which addresses both the many attractions of Heinlein’s writing as well as the problematic elements which have blackened its name among critics for years. Haldeman’s introduction is comprehensive and pretty much definitive. Also a veteran, he rightly explores the issues with Starship Troopers in a way that only someone with his experience could, whilst simultaneously vindicating it for the thing it is: a timeless classic.

The Folio Society edition of Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, introduced by Joe Haldeman and illustrated by Stephen Hickman, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

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Reviewed by Joseph Sale 

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