Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Starship Troopers

Robert A. Heinlein

I'm not quite sure how I feel about Starship Troopers. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the book (as, in fact, I have everything else I've read by Heinlein), even though it could certainly be viewed as Heinlein's novel-length discourse on militarism and society. On the other hand, I strongly disagree with most, if not all, of the arguments/conclusions it puts forth, for example, that militarism is necessary for survival, that rule by former soldiers (or at least those that have served in a military-like organization) would lead to a perfect society, that crime is based on an excess of liberty for juveniles (rather than 1. a lack of responsibility and 2. over-zealous know-it-alls who seek power for power's sake and criminalize more and more to satisfy their ever-growing powerlust. You may think of more examples...), and, of course, that liberty is not fundamental.

The story follows (using flashbacks) cap(sule) trooper Juan Rico ("Johnny") though his decision to join the Federal Service against his father's wishes, Mobile Infantry (MI) boot camp, several missions, and officer training. The emphasis throughout is on duty to the "group", whether that group is the squad, the Service, the Nation or the Species, and the noblesse of sacrifice in such service. (This is the justification for only allowing those who have Served [not even those who are Serving] to vote and hold office: only they can fully understand the need for sacrifice and be willing to put the collective needs of those they govern above the individual sacrifices - again of those they govern, though at least they are counted amongst the governed as near as I can tell - that must be made to fulfill those needs.)

Intermingled throughout is death, considered a necessary and routine part of life for the MI and utterly required for a free society. But there is only one instance of death that stands out to me, and only one case where the punishment would normally warrant death but mercy was shown. First, the death, which was pretty gratuitous: Heinlein seemingly has to portray a hanging for some reason, and so he creates a character - one we've never even heard of before - and has him "rape the dog" (except, of course, that he's given maybe 5 pages in the whole book so he's not really a villain) by raping & killing a 4-year-old. Not sure how exactly this would illustrate Heinlein's point, since I would probably kill the bastard.

Second, during boot camp, a recruit strikes a commanding officer (well, and has an attack of stupid and admits it). Normally, this would be a hanging offense, but the commander of the camp convenes a field court-marshal, so the recruit only gets 15 lashes and a bad-conduct discharge. Very merciful indeed. This was, really, the one area of the book that I was truly uneasy, all though the leadup to the court-marshal (whereupon he is only sentenced to the aforementioned lashes). I think it is meant to enforce the notion that, arbitrary though they might be, the rules are the rules and you'd better subvert yourself to them for the betterment of the squad/service/nation/race.

A few closing remarks in regards to the movie of the same title: night and day. Heinlein's Starship Troopers is a philosophical discourse on society. The movie is, well, a "bug hunt", as it was originally titled, baring scant resemblance to the book apart from names and the bugs.
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