Review: Starship Troopers

As part of my New Year’s Resolutions, I’m making a concerted to read more, especially science fiction, hoping to chew through some of those old favourites and classics everyone talks about and I haven’t quite caught up on yet. 

Although I have written (music) reviews for a (small) internet publication before, I’m not writing with the intent to provide comprehensive guidance to potential readers.  Just a few quick impressions, rants or raves.


I finished Starship Troopers on a plane on the way to see my family.  Locked in a metal box in the sky for eight hours with nothing to do but sleeping or reading (okay, there were other things I could have been doing, but those were the only two I cared about).

What surprised me is how easily I was able to indulge in long reading binges through the book, despite it just being a day to day account of the goings on of some imaginary army.  I was fascinated, despite not especially caring for military stories.  I wanted to read on, despite usually disliking diary-style accounts of things that just meander from one topic and character to another.

I think it’s because Heinlein is so good at revealing the features of the world he has made in a way that adds to the action.  He doesn’t need to stop for a paragraph of scenery or exposition – it is built into the action itself.  In the opening scene of the book, the Mobile Infantry are in a ship on the way to a battle, getting ready to drop.  The main character, Juan, says “I had to wait while squads four and five manned their capsules and moved on down the firing tube before my capsule showed up on the port track and I could climb into it.”

We know from this that Juan is waiting to deploy into an unfamiliar but organised system, that he is anxious for the battle to begin because he “had to” wait, and we immediately understand the sci-fi setting, because these squads are being launched from capsules, not parachutes.

In my own writing I try to achieve this seamless mesh of details and action.  Some people have said my writing is sparse and smooth, with a strong economy of language and detail.  It’s hard to find the sweet spot though.  When I get it wrong they tell me I rushed over the setting too much.  If I could always get it right, this is how I would want to do it.

If I could make one main criticism of the book it would be with one of its underlying philosophical themes: that corporal punishment and ultimate, unquestioned authority is just and good.

Several segments of the book involve scenes from Mr Dubois’ History and Moral Philosophy class, which Juan attended while still in school.  Heinlein builds an argument that it is not the fault of troubled youths that they are violent and out of control.  It is society’s fault for not disciplining them and teaching them right from wrong.  In the society of the book there are no such problems any more, but before that society formed, the previous society (modelled on the real Western world) was full of terrible problems, such as juvenile delinquents.  Mr Dubois argues that you have to smack a puppy when it messes on the floor and rub its nose in it, otherwise it won’t learn to behave well.  Likewise, you have to use ultimate authority and apply corporal punishment to people, otherwise there cannot be a robust and moral society.

I feel like this argument is intended to be a big “gotcha” moment.  The readers are supposed to find no logical flaw in the argument, but at the same time be emotionally disturbed.  The dissonance is supposed to unsettle us.  It didn’t unsettle me, because I feel the picture is not complete.  It is short sighted to expect that ultimate authority won’t be abused.  It isn’t abused in the book.  Not once.  Society is perfect.  Maybe Heinlein makes his argument because he can’t conceive of abuse of power.  It hasn’t occurred to him because as a privileged person he is relatively unlikely to experience abuse himself.  Addressing this may have made the novel richer in some ways, but perhaps it undercuts the concept of the military as an ultimate authority, which is kind of essential to the function of the story he was trying to tell.  Too bad.  Maybe some other novel can touch more on abuse of power.  I’ve heard it can be a bit of a problem in the military, from time to time.

Overall, I’m glad to have finally read such a well-regarded science fiction classic.  It is the first Heinlein I have read.  I look forward to perhaps reading Stranger In A Strange Land in the future.

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