Starship Troopers – Heinlein

Very interesting this, because I am quite (OK, over-) familiar with the film version with Denise Richards (and some other people) which treads an uneasy line between being a satire and a celebration of fascism. That is intended by Paul Verhoeven (who in the commentary track on the DVD – I know – reminisces about eating tulip bulbs in the wreckage of his family house in Holland during the Nazi occupation) as a satire of stormtrooper/Hitler Youth propaganda movies, but updated to the space age.

This doesn’t appear to have any such intentions. As far as I can tell, it’s a straight-out utopia, where the right to vote is determined by Federal Service (not necessarily in the armed forces) and no one who hasn’t served has any right to participate in government, although they are free to run businesses and make stacks of cash, so that’s OK.

I think the book attempts to describe everything that a Citizen would have to go through to achieve this honour, from boot camp, where they are relentlessly bullied and broken down, but also rigorously trained to the peak of physical fitness and fighting perfection; to officer training, via combat missions against the enemy. There’s a constant thread of “this is hard, painful work, but it gives you a real sense of camaraderie, and self-confidence without arrogance” (troopers trust their training will help them survive, and know that any mistake will be spotted and punished by their loving and all-seeing superiors). Anyone who does see out their service has really earned the right to participate in society, and equally, anyone who doesn’t, hasn’t.

Written soon after the second world war, filled with the “look what we can do if we all work together” ethos of the time (well, in America, anyway, not sure that Germany or Japan felt quite the same) it’s a simplistic utopia – I find it hard to argue with. On the one hand I’m not entirely convinced that everyone should have the right to vote merely by having failed to die over the first 18 years of their existence, but then Telegraph readers are always banging on about the need to bring back National Service, which makes me very wary of the idea.

Heinlein’s central argument appears to be that voting influences the lives of so many people that you shouldn’t be allowed to do it until you have proved that you are capable of supporting others under extreme conditions. He mentions that there are alternatives to military service to become a citizen, but spends no time at all discussing them.

He does spend quite a bit of time discussing the efficiencies of the Mobile Infantry – everyone fights, no one quits. If you refuse to “drop” you are busted out and can never be a citizen. This means that the army is capable of running itself with much lower overheads in terms of auxiliary and command staff. All really quite tedious.

He also goes into qute a lot of detail about the Trooper’s power suits, which are more interesting, but familiar enough to anyone who’s ever watched any Japanese sci-fi. I don’t know if Heinlein invented the concept, although I doubt it. I could be wrong, not going to bother looking it up.

The casual sexism is quite amusing. Females are useful as pilots, apparently, due to their superior reflexes or something. So the Troopers hardly ever see them, especially not the grunts. It’s apparently good enough for a Trooper to guard “bulkhead 30” – beyond which lies the female quarters and imagine the girls on the other side “what we fight for”. It’s a stark contrast to the film, where the “everyone fights” motto extends to the fairer sex, and everyone showers together. Heinlein’s Rico would have exploded, I reckon. What a weird bunch they were in the 50s. Also, Rico’s conflict with his father is undermined in a rather ridiculous way in the book, I much prefer killing him off without resolving anything, as Verhoeven does.

Comparing the film and the book in total, it’s easy to see why the intended satire by Verhoeven was missed by so many critics – I think it’s due to the strength of the utopia imagined by Heinlein in the source material, which won’t quite wash out in the film. I was quite surprised how close the two were – apart from the love triangles, and the fact that the second half of the book is ignored (it would have been irrelevant to a film about blasting the legs off giant insectoids).

The film has a better story, and better special effects and you cannot beat Denise Richards in a pilot’s uniform, but the book is a very thought-provoking read.

See also:

Starship Troopers (the film) – did I mention it’s got Denise Richards in it? I would steer clear of the sequels, though.

Not really relevant, but interesting as a comparison: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson and The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima also give insights into post-war America, but from rather oblique angles.

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