Science fiction is often described as a genre of ideas and informed speculation, anything but the “mindless fluff” the librarian in my home town, for example, believed it to be. The wildest, most outrageous sci-fi tales I’ve read have all been built around an idea. Only those completely unfamiliar with science fiction, judging its books by their often lurid covers, could for a moment believe this genre was dominated by “mindless fluff.” In science fiction, the idea’s the thing.
How that idea is used to tell a story makes all the difference. Handled properly, the idea informs the story and gives it purpose. Handled otherwise, and you end up with a novel such as Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, the sixth novel to be given the Hugo Award, and an otherwise well-executed sci-fi novel that for me has a serious flaw.
Starship Troopers is a coming-of-age story set in a future in which several of the author’s political views have come to be realized, a world in which one Johnny Rico stumbles through his youthful idealism and into a military career. This is a first person narrative, from the point of view of someone who is looking back over his life as he prepares for one more mission in the long war that has come to define him. Rico’s views make perfect sense for a man examining the experiences he’s had, and the trials he has survived. They also make sense in a novel written by someone who undoubtedly knew veterans of the Second World War, which was anything BUT ancient history when Heinlein wrote the book. You can see something in this novel, I believe, of the mindset that allowed a generation to survive the greatest conflagration in human history. The ideas that drive this story are for most part the politics of Heinlein’s time and his recent past, extrapolated – at times somewhat naively – into a none-too-distant future. And as should be the case, this is all intertwined with both a well-developed imaginary culture and an adventure that, together, give the tale a plausible context. As I started rereading the book for the first time in decades, it held up well to my youthful memories of an exciting space opera.
Until Chapter Eight.
When I first read Starship Troopers in my mid teens, the political undercurrent of the book was completely lost on me. (That some people actively disliked the book because they disagreed with the author would never have occurred.) I read the adventure, the coming-of-age tale, my mind’s eye filled with images of soldiers in high-tech powered armor battling alien “bugs.” What, if any, reaction, I had to Chapter Eight back then I can no longer recall. I reacted to it in this reading, however, with a certain amount of annoyance.
In Chapter Eight, which takes place during Rico’s basic training, a fellow recruit gone AWOL has been brought back to the camp to be executed for the crime of murdering a child. At first this event unfolds as another grim learning experience, to be endured because the murderer was “one of them,” and the military service to which Rico and the others belong insists on handling the matter. Left to this, incident would hardly comprise a few paragraphs, not a full chapter, but as Rico watches the execution his mind drifts back to a high school lecture that suddenly seems relevant to him. It’s at this point that the novel hits a speed bump. The story, which is well-paced up to this point, comes to a dead halt while the author, through both the imaginary teacher and Rico, pontificates on what Heinlein apparently believes are factors that will lead to the downfall of 20th Century Western Civilization – current events when Heinlein wrote the book. The lecture is, in part, a history lesson, and the history being examined from the perspective of this imagined future is nothing less than our own. The reason for its fall is summed up bluntly and naively as being due to fatal flaws in liberal politics and policy, as if any episode in history could possibly be put neatly into a little box that could be labeled “This Explains Everything.”
I do not agree with what Heinlein is saying; no honest student of history, aware of its complexities, would be comfortable with such a convenient summary, aimed at supporting a single political point of view. But that’s not what made me set the book aside for a day or two. This very same political philosophy is everywhere evident in the novel; so much so that at least one publisher rejected the book as being too controversial. You can’t escape it; what he is saying about duty and responsibility, however one-sided, is impossible to miss. And yet I was still able to enjoy the story as a thought-provoking exploration of those ideas. These being ideas I don’t entirely agree with, it says something about the skill of the author that I kept reading. I reacted with annoyance when I did because Heinlein stopped the story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon.
It hurts the story, kills its momentum, its pacing, which was very well handled to that point. It took an effort for me to shake off my annoyance and go on reading.
I said before that I mostly disagree with Heinlein’s politics as revealed in Starship Troopers, even though I recognize some elements of truth in his over-simplifications. My objection to the blatant preaching in Chapter Eight is not political as much as the annoyance of a reader and a story-teller to a disservice done a good tale. It was an unnecessary diversion. Heinlein was already presenting the ideas at the core of the novel deftly and clearly as the story flowed along. If you were to read this book while skipping Chapter Eight you would, in my opinion, miss nothing. The message contained within the novel would have remained intact. Only authorial self-indulgence would be lost, and that’s rarely a bad thing.
I did go on, however, and cringed a bit as a small amount of similar lecturing occurred later in the book, while Rico is in officer training. To be honest, that material might not have bothered me much at all, because what Rico learns then is a part of the flow of the story. He is, after all, being challenged by teachers who are trying to determine whether or not he has what it takes to lead mean in combat. I was sensitized to these otherwise minor diversions by the speed bump I’d hit earlier. By rubbing my nose in the ideas central to the book, Heinlein made it impossible for me to simply let the story do its job. I was still shaking my head when I finished and set it aside.
Time and experience change the way you interpret the world around you. When I was fifteen years old and atrociously naïve myself, the ideas at the heart of Starship Troopers were largely lost on me. I knew Heinlein back then from works such as Red Planet and Between Planets, and with such stories in mind, I read Starship Troopers. I took in the futuristic adventure and nothing more, and so remembered the book fondly. As an adult, and having some understanding of politics, (enough to detest it on general principle, even as I recognize its necessity), I couldn’t let it go as a simple escapist adventure. Heinlein clearly didn’t intend the book to fill such a purpose. I can politely agree to disagree with people on political issues if they offer the same level of respect, but self-righteous pontification puts me right off. Unfortunately, Heinlein indulged in such in this story, interrupting a good tale in the process, and lost me.
This book won the Hugo Award in 1960. Apparently more people than not either enjoyed the story in spite of the politics, or agreed and enjoyed seeing their ideals cast in a tale told by one of the masters of the craft. Had the vote been taken in 1971, when I was 15 years old, I’m willing to bet I’d have voted for Starship Troopers. In 2013, at the age of 57, most likely not.