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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers
by Robert Heinlein
(3/5 stars)

I'd long heard about Robert Heinlein's "controversial" masterpiece "Starship Troopers" but it was one of those I never quite got around to reading until now. I have to admit I was pretty disappointed. The book is well-written enough and fairly entertaining, not to mention it's only 200 pages so it doesn't take long too read. However, I thought the human element was really lacking in the story. To me, most of it felt more like a dry procedures manual on how to train an army and fight a war.

The story focuses on Juan "Johnnie" Rico, who is from a well-off family on Earth. The ruling government known as the Federation—remember, this was written years before Gene Roddenberry also used that same name in "Star Trek"—lets you have pretty much all the freedoms we have now, except it restricts voting only to veterans. So in order to vote you have to do a hitch in the service, though people like Juan's father really don't care anyway. This is why the book is controversial, though I can't say it really outraged me. I suppose in Ike's America--only about five years removed from the McCarthy hearings--Heinlein's dim view of American-style democracy would be far more shocking.

More out of loyalty to his friend Carl than any patriotic nonsense, Johnnie joins up with the Mobile Infantry and begins the brutal boot camp that's designed to weed out all the undesirables. In the boot camp we're presented with a lot of military philosophy such as that a conscript army doesn't work and the MI's tough love—which includes flogging or the death penalty for serious offenses—is necessary to create the most effective fighting force. Johnnie survives the boot camp only to find out there's a war going on with the Bugs, who are a sort of spider-like enemy.

Johnnie goes through a few battles as a regular grunt in powered army, laying waste to a city on a planet aligned with the Bugs. From there the story switches over into a lot of descriptions about the chain of command as Johnnie becomes an officer and eventually through circumstances gets his own platoon during a crucial battle against the Bugs. That's where it ends.

As far as human emotions go we're primarily treated to pain and some camaraderie, though since Johnnie keeps getting transferred and the people around him keep dying we don't get too much of that either. Which is why I felt this book was pretty dry overall and while it kept we reading, it didn't make a huge impact.

Now it might have made more of an impact, but I read what I think is a superior book that is very similar, but has more humanity to it. That would be "The Forever War" by Joe Haldemann, which was written about fifteen years later. Like Heinlein, Haldemann was a soldier in a war (Vietnam instead of Korea) who wrote a story about a young man who is enrolled in the military (in this case against his will, at least at first) and goes around fighting an alien army in powered armor, though showing how technology had advanced from the late '50s to early '70s, he fought with lasers instead of nuclear-tipped missiles. The difference is Haldemann's story has a love story component that gives it more humanity and thus more impact.

Of course without "Starship Troopers" I don't think we'd have "Forever War" so it definitely is an important book and good in its own way. I'm just saying one is sitting on my bookshelf and the other I returned to the library.

For the record I have seen the travesty of a movie Hollywood made a few years ago on late-night cable. That it stars Denise Richards should already be a clue to its awfulness. While they managed to keep some of the gist of the novel, they pretty much disemboweled it and removed anything resembling intelligence. If you want a generic human heroes-vs.-evil-CGI-aliens shoot 'em up then it's fine. I'm just mentioning that for completeness.

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