Friday, 19 June 2009

Starship Troopers, by Robert A Heinlein – book and film

I read a lot of Heinlein in the 1960s, when I absorbed all of the SFF I could get my hands on, but was never a great fan and didn't read any of his books more than once. I remember enjoying Starship Troopers, though, so looked forward to a re-read with the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Coincidentally, the film of the book was on the TV just before I read it, so I recorded it to watch immediately after the read.

I remembered nothing about the plot except for what is obviously implied by the title, and those cool combat suits; part exoskeleton, part armour, part space-suit, part weapon carrier (probably what appealed to my teenage self!). I was at first impressed by the way in which the blunt, matter-of-fact style is well-suited to the subject of a personal memoir by a no-nonsense soldier, and followed his account of life on a future Earth and training in the "boot camp" with interest. I was not immediately put off by the right-wing moralising, since that seemed to go with the territory, but about half-way through this becomes the dominant theme.

An entire chapter is spent recalling a school lesson in which he learned the importance of corporal and capital punishment, and how stupid societies had been to abandon them in the late 20th century. Reading now from an adult perspective, I'd certainly agree that too many children are brought up badly today and lack a structured disciplinary environment, but the notion that if we always hit them immediately they did anything wrong they would grow up to be model citizens is simplistic, to put it mildly. So is Heinlein's notion that children are not born with any moral sense, it has to be beaten into them. Plenty of studies have shown how people, like other social animals, are hard-wired to have an understanding of working cooperatively with others and adhering to the behavioural codes which make that possible – the basis of morality.

Elsewhere in the book is another polemic about the evils of universal franchise, and why governments should be controlled only by those who have volunteered for military service and passed the rigorous training designed to weed out those without the "right stuff". In fact, the entire book is a paean to the virtues of the military life, the harsher the better, and also to unthinking obedience untroubled by any concerns about right or wrong – that's the responsibility of those who give the orders. And this so soon after Nuremburg?

The last part of the book returns to action rather than polemic and is all the better for it. The book is not without its merits, mainly the laconic and gritty account of future combat which presumably influenced Haldeman's vastly superior The Forever War. However, the plot gets swamped by the repellent philosophy. This is best regarded as a curiosity, mainly of value in providing an insight into the mind of right-wing America in the mid-20th century.
Watching the film, made in 1997 some 38 years after the book was first published, is a rather strange experience. It's as if the characters and plot elements of the book have been chopped up and rearranged, with some additions and subtractions, and the attributes of one character sometimes assigned to another. The script stays broadly true to the spirit of the book, with Heinlein's jingoism parodied in a series of simplistic, gung-ho news broadcasts. There are some major differences, however. One is (almost inevitably) a much stronger romance element, achieved partly by making the Mobile Infantry mixed rather than male-only. The other (sadly) is the absence of those impressive combat suits and the tactics associated with them. Apart from the grenade-sized tactical nukes, the infantry fight with equipment and tactics not dissimilar to those of World War 2, which makes the military aspect of the film rather a sad joke. And as usual, the director is keen to maximise the use of the CGI "Bugs" with lots of associated nastiness and slaughter. He also doesn't remotely care about basic credibility; the Bug homeworld is shown as being on the other side of the galaxy (at least 50,000 light years away) but their favourite mode of attack is to launch asteroids from the belt around their planet to score direct hits on specific Earth cities, despite the lack of evidence for any technology. Given that a human spaceship was able to take action to avoid a collision with an incoming asteroid, they clearly travel at a small fraction of lightspeed, so would be likely to take at least a million years to make the journey. No wonder today's youngsters are so ignorant of science.
A brief heads-up for those who followed my series of posts on Global Warming and SF. I have combined and updated them and put the result on my website as a handy reference (to be amended in the light of any further developments) HERE .


Jim Harris said...

Leaving out Heinlein's wonderful powered suits was also my main disappointment with the movie version of Starship Troopers. Some critics of the novel have often called if fascist, which I think is unfair, but strangely enough the movie people included SS like references.

I've always thought it fascinating how books are intepreted into movies. I have to assume every reader sees a different book too.

I can find many things to dislike about the book, but I keep rereading it every 5-10 years, and still enjoy it immensely.

Fred said...

Good post--enjoyed reading it.

One minor quibble: voting is not restricted to those who served in the military, but to those who volunteered for government service, of which one type would be the military. Those who were selected for the civil service also got the franchise, or so I understand the system.

Anthony G Williams said...

Judging by discussion in the Classic Science Fiction group, there seems to be some confusion about the franchise issue. Sometimes Heinlein indicates that if you drop out of the military course you lose your chance of citizenship for ever, at other times he says that there is an alternative form of service.