I’m certain, that, if asked, more than a few readers will list Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as one of their favorite novels… and more than a few others will denounce it vigorously as a fascist military dystopia, no matter how the semi-libertarian Heinlein portrayed “our” future society. I’m one of those who happens to like it, because, after having been a military pilot and having served as a political staffer in Washington, D.C., Heinlein’s insights into both the military and into what supports workable government and what does not seem to me, at least, to be validated by what I’ve observed in politics and government over the past several decades. At its core, Starship Troopers examines what is required for effective and responsible government. For Heinlein, those who govern must pay a price for that privilege, and since he believes in broad-based governance, that means that every member of the electorate must pay through a term of military service. He doesn’t require military service, and no one is forced to serve, but if you don’t serve, you can’t vote, and you cannot be elected to public office. Interestingly enough, Heinlein does not suggest that this future society is optimal – only that it will work.
What is often ignored by those who criticize Starship Troopers is the fact that Heinlein was literally only fictionalizing the predictions of earlier scholars and politicians, such as deTocqueville and MacCauley, who predicted that any democracy would eventually fail because too great a proportion of the electorate would vote themselves greater and greater benefits without having paid for them in one way or another. Yet few criticize those who first made those points, which may also demonstrate why fiction is often more powerful than either scholarship or rhetoric directly from politicians.
What I also find amusing is that, in a sense, the military draft in place at the time that Heinlein wrote the book was in fact considered a price of “freedom” during World War II and immediately thereafter. In the Vietnam era that followed, however, the wide-spread use of educational deferments placed that price disproportionately on the less-advantaged males in American society, one of the factors leading to the abolition of the draft, in turn effectively repudiating any idea that citizens owed any moral debt to society, which was, of course, Heinlein’s point in his fictionalization of a future collapse of American government.
The other basic point underlying Starship Troopers is the idea that, like it or not, force in some form determines whether societies survive, and that any society that fails to understand that is doomed to fail. Heinlein was not, in fact, glorifying force, at least not as I read the book, but looking back through history and pointing out that such was the pattern human societies had exhibited from time immemorial. In presenting a biologically and socially very different culture in the “Bugs,” he was essentially postulating that any intelligent species would be both aggressive and territorial… and interestingly enough, I’ve recently read several scholarly articles suggesting the same thing, although the scholarly types use the term “predatory.” To me, that’s aggressive and territorial.
In the end, in Starship Troopers, Heinlein offers, if through a glass darkly, a fairly accurate picture of human faults, foibles, and virtues… and that may well be why some don’t like the book… and why I do.
L.E. Modesitt, Jr. can be found online at http://www.lemodesittjr.com
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (978-0-7653-1960-9 / $29.99) will be available from Tor Books on August 17th 2010.
- Space Cadets and Starship Troopers
- David Brin: Beyond This Horizon
- David Drake: Starship Soldier
- David Hartwell: Double Star
- Rudy Rucker: Starman Jones, Citizen of the Galaxy, and Tunnel in the Sky
- Joan Slonczewski: Have Space Suit—Will Travel
- Charles Stross: Glory Road
- Michael Swanwick: Have Space Suit—Will Travel
- Vernor Vinge: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
- Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium