February 27, 2011 by Daniel Stack
In my sophomore year of college I made the transition from reading Star Trek novels to “serious” science fiction. After devouring the Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series I encountered Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
Starship Troopers takes place in a future where citizenship on Earth and its colonies is earned by serving a term of Federal Service. The viewpoint character becomes a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. The novel doesn’t discuss non-military terms of Federal Service in any detail but it does indicate that any such term involves some amount of danger. When the protagonist, Johnny Rico enlists the recruiting sergeant talks about terms such as “playing a human guinea pig for new diseases”, being a “left-handed glass blower… at the bottom of the Pacific”, or field-testing survival equipment on Titan.
One criticism of Starship Troopers, and a valid one in my opinion, is, to quote Anthony Boucher, that Heinlein “forgotten to insert a story”. I think that’s a pretty valid criticism – if you come to Starship Troopers for the story, you’ll be disappointed. It’s not that there is no story at all, but it is secondary. Much of the novel consists of classroom scenes where the instructor lectures about all that was wrong with the 20th century democracies – their tolerance for juvenile delinquents, the belief that all men are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
So I think any examination of Starship Troopers has to focus on the politics. I believe that Heinlein’s point can be summarized when one of the instructors, Major Reid, states, “Under our system every voter and every officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.” One of my problems with the novel is I’m not certain that this service, as presented in the novel, is indicative of someone who places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage. I can see how such a person is capable of doing so. But people are complicated and contradictory beings. Take for example budget override votes, something that happen here in Massachusetts quite often. Typically there is a vote to increase town property taxes to build a new school or to hire more teachers (or avoid layoffs). You will often hear people state that their children are all grown or they have no children. I am certain that some of these people have performed such a difficult service – serving active duty in the military, working as a police officer, etc. (I am separating this from people who simply do not believe the expense is justified.)
In the novel I find that Johnny Rico is more than willing to die for his follow soldiers. Nor is he one who will question the orders he gets from on high. However, one senses he doesn’t give much thought to the civilians back home. He doesn’t dislike them, it’s just that they don’t seem to occupy much of his thoughts. I get the feeling that the group whose welfare he is willing to put ahead of his own is the group of those currently in or veterans of Federal Service.
That said, I think Heinlein is onto something when he posits that such a group of voters and officeholders would be a good thing. I think a lot of what is wrong with the way our system currently operates is that people tend to vote too parochially – what’s good for me and mine. And we’ve trained our politicians to operate that way. We want officeholders that tell us we can have everything without anyone (or at least me) needing to make any sacrifice. To be honest, I don’t have an answer on any test to determine a person who can go beyond their own interests. I’m not certain it would be a good idea to have such a test in any case. But I do believe it would be good to vote in such a matter – to vote for what we believe to be for the good of the group as a whole.
I don’t believe this would lead to everyone voting the same way. We each take our own life experiences when it comes to determining what is good for the group as a whole. I’ve had some debates with libertarians (I myself tilt liberal) and I believe they are being honest in their viewpoint while at the same time I am being honest with mine. Two people, both of them operating on a goal for what is best for the group as a whole, are still likely to have very different views on how to accomplish this goal. This is a good form of disagreement. Right now we have members of both political parties who will not ask any of their constituents to sacrifice anything – and their constituents have rewarded such behavior. I believe the instructors of History and Moral Philosophy from Starship Troopers would look on such people with contempt.
I think Starship Troopers succeeds not because it presents an easily realizable utopia – I don’t think it does. But it is an excellent starting point for conversation. Indeed, Joe Haldeman’s Forever War is viewed by many as a response to Starship Troopers.
Note – One thing I’ve neglected to mention – while you won’t go to Starship Troopers for a riveting plot, I will say that the powered armor the mobile infantry wears is quite cool and enjoyable to read about.