First edition cover
|Author||Robert A. Heinlein|
|Publisher||G. P. Putnam's Sons|
|Publication date||December 1959|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|Pages||263 pp (paperback edition)|
|LC Classification||PZ7.H368 Su8|
Starship Troopers is a military science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, first published (in abridged form) as a serial in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (October, November 1959, as "Starship Soldier") and published hardcover in December, 1959.
The first-person narrative is about a young soldier named Juan "Johnnie" Rico and his exploits in the Mobile Infantry, a futuristic military unit equipped with powered armor. Rico's military career progresses from recruit to non-commissioned officer and finally to officer against the backdrop of an interstellar war between mankind and an arachnoid species known as "the Bugs". Through Rico's eyes, Heinlein examines moral and philosophical aspects of suffrage, civic virtue, the necessities of war and capital punishment, and the nature of juvenile delinquency.
Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960. The novel has attracted controversy and criticism for its social and political themes, which some critics claim promote militarism. Starship Troopers has been adapted into several films and games, with the most widely known being the 1997 film by Paul Verhoeven.
Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, and served on active duty in the U.S. Navy for five years. He served on the new aircraft carrier USS Lexington in 1931, and as a naval lieutenant aboard the destroyer USS Roper between 1933 and 1934, until he was forced to leave the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. Heinlein never served in active combat while a Navy officer and he was a civilian during WW II doing research and development at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Heinlein's non-combat Naval service would become a point of contention in later criticism of Starship Troopers.
According to Heinlein, his desire to write Starship Troopers was sparked by the publication of a newspaper advertisement placed by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy on April 5, 1958 calling for a unilateral suspension of nuclear weapon testing by the United States. In response, Robert and Virginia Heinlein created the small "Patrick Henry League" in an attempt to create support for the U.S. nuclear testing program. During the unsuccessful campaign, Heinlein found himself under attack both from within and outside of the science fiction community for his views. Starship Troopers may therefore be viewed as Heinlein both clarifying and defending his military and political views of the time.
Some time during 1958 and 1959, Heinlein ceased work on the novel that would become Stranger in a Strange Land and wrote Starship Troopers. It was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in October and November 1959 as a serial called Starship Soldier. Although originally written as a juvenile novel for Scribners, it was rejected. With their rejection of his novel, Heinlein ceased writing juvenile fiction for Scribners, ending his association with them completely, and began writing books with more adult themes. The novel was eventually published as teenage fiction by G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Starship Troopers takes place in the midst of an interstellar war between the Terran Federation of Earth and the Arachnids (referred to as "The Bugs") of Klendathu. It is narrated as a series of flashbacks by Juan Rico, and is one of only a few Heinlein novels set out in this fashion. The novel opens with Rico aboard the corvette Rodger Young, about to embark on a raid against the planet of the "Skinnies," who are allies of the Arachnids. We learn that he is a cap(sule) trooper in the Terran Federation's Mobile Infantry. The raid itself, one of the few instances of actual combat in the novel, is relatively brief: the Mobile Infantry land on the planet, destroy their targets, and retreat, suffering a single casualty in the process.
The story then flashes back to Rico's graduation from high school, and his decision to sign up for Federal Service over the objections of his father. This is the only chapter that describes Rico's civilian life, and most of it is spent on the monologues of two people: retired Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois, Rico's school instructor in "History and Moral Philosophy," and Fleet Sergeant Ho, a recruiter for the armed forces of the Terran Federation.
Dubois serves as a stand-in for Heinlein throughout the novel, and delivers what is probably the book's most famous soliloquy on violence, and how it "has settled more issues in history than has any other factor." Fleet Sergeant Ho's monologues examine the nature of military service, and his anti-military tirades appear in the book primarily as a contrast with Dubois. (It is later revealed that his rants are calculated to scare off the weaker applicants).
Interspersed throughout the book are other flashbacks to Rico's high school History and Moral Philosophy course, which describe how in the Terran Federation of Rico's day, the rights of a full Citizen (to vote, and hold public office) must be earned through some form of volunteer "military" service. Those residents who have not exercised their right to perform this Federal Service retain the other rights generally associated with a modern democracy (free speech, assembly, etc.), but they cannot vote or hold public office. This structure arose ad hoc after the collapse of the 20th century western democracies, brought on by both social failures at home and military defeat by the Chinese Hegemony overseas (assumed looking forward into the late 20th century from the time the novel was written in the late 1950s).
In the next section of the novel Rico goes to boot camp at Camp Currie, on the northern prairies. Five chapters are spent exploring Rico's experience entering the service under the training of his instructor, Career Ship's Sergeant Charles Zim. Camp Currie is so rigorous that less than ten percent of the recruits finish basic training; the rest either resign, are expelled, or die in training. One of the chapters deals with Ted Hendrick, a fellow recruit and constant complainer who is flogged and expelled for striking a superior officer. Another recruit, a deserter who committed a heinous crime while AWOL, is hanged by his battalion. Rico himself is flogged for poor handling of (simulated) nuclear weapons during a drill; despite these experiences he eventually graduates and is assigned to a unit.
At some point during Rico's training, the Bug War has begun to brew, and Rico finds himself taking part in combat operations. The war "officially" starts with an Arachnid attack that annihilates the city of Buenos Aires, although Rico makes it clear that prior to the attack there were plenty of "'incidents,' 'patrols,' or 'police actions.'" Rico briefly describes the Terran Federation's loss at the Battle of Klendathu where his unit is decimated and his ship destroyed. Following Klendathu, the Terran Federation is reduced to making hit-and-run raids similar to the one described at the beginning of the novel (which, chronologically would be placed between Chapters 10 and 11). Rico meanwhile finds himself posted to Rasczak's Roughnecks, named after Lieutenant Rasczak (his first name is never given). This part of the book focuses on the daily routine of military life, as well as the relationship between officers and non-commissioned officers, personified in this case by Rasczak and Sergeant Jelal.
Eventually, Rico decides to become a career soldier and attends Officer Candidate School, which turns out to be just like boot camp, only "squared and cubed with books added." Rico is commissioned a temporary Third Lieutenant as a field-test final exam and commands his own unit during Operation Royalty; eventually he graduates as a Second Lieutenant and full-fledged officer.
The final chapter serves as more of a coda, depicting Rico aboard the Rodger Young as the lieutenant in command of Rico's Roughnecks, preparing to drop to Klendathu as part of a major strike, with his father (having joined the Service earlier in the novel) as his senior sergeant and a Third Lieutenant-in-training of his own under his wing.
Starship Troopers is a political essay as well as a novel. Large portions of the book take place in classrooms, with Rico and other characters engaged in debates with their History and Moral Philosophy teachers, who are often thought to be speaking in Heinlein's voice. The overall theme of the book is that social responsibility requires being prepared to make individual sacrifice. Heinlein's Terran Federation is a limited democracy with aspects of a meritocracy based on willingness to sacrifice in the common interest. Suffrage belongs only to those willing to serve their society by two years of volunteer Federal Service — "the franchise is today limited to discharged veterans", (ch. XII), instead of anyone "...who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37°C" The Federation is required to find a place for anyone who desires to serve, regardless of his skill or aptitude (this also includes dangerous non-military work such as serving as experimental medical test subjects).
There is an explicitly-made contrast to the democracies of the 20th century, which according to the novel, collapsed because "people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears." Indeed, Colonel Dubois criticizes as unrealistic the famous U.S. Declaration of Independence line concerning "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". No one can stop anyone from pursuing happiness, but life and liberty are said to exist only if they are deliberately sought and paid for.
Starship Troopers is also widely-regarded as a vehicle for Heinlein's anti-communist views, best summed up by Rico's (and his Federation's) belief that "correct morals arise from knowing what man is—not what do-gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellies would like him to be." Characters attack Karl Marx (a "pompous fraud"), the labor theory of value ("All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart..."), and Plato's The Republic ("ant-like communism" and "weird in the extreme").
The Korean War ended only five years before Heinlein began writing Starship Troopers, and the book makes several direct references to it, such as the claim that "no 'Department of Defense' ever won a war." Heinlein also refers to the American prisoners of war taken in that conflict, including the popular accusations of Communist brainwashing. After the Korean War ended, there were rumors that the Chinese and North Koreans continued to hold a large number of Americans. Rico's History and Moral Philosophy class at Officer Candidate School has a long discussion about whether it is moral to never leave a single man behind, even at the risk of starting a new war. Rico debates whether it was worth it to risk two nations' futures over a single man who might not even deserve to live, but concludes it "doesn't matter whether it's a thousand — or just one, sir. You fight."
Several references are made to other wars: these include the name of the starship that collided with Valley Forge, Ypres, a major battleground in World War I, as well as Rico's boot camp, Camp Arthur Currie (named after Sir Arthur Currie who commanded the Canadian Corps during that war); a brief reference is also made to Camp Sergeant Smokey Smith, named after a Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross in WWII. Another World War I reference was the phrase "Come on, you apes! You wanna live forever?", which comes from Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly at the Battle of Belleau Wood (Although instead of "apes", Daly said "sons of bitches"). This phrase, however, has been attributed to various people throughout military history, including perhaps the earliest documented citation by Frederick II of Prussia when he was meant to have said "Kerls, wollt ihr ewig leben?" at the Battle of Kolín. The Rodger Young was named after a World War II Medal of Honor recipient on New Georgia Island. Another war reference, this one from the War of 1812, is the implications of the court-martial of Third Lieutenant William Sitgreaves Cox, which are discussed in some detail.
In addition to Heinlein's political views, Starship Troopers popularized a number of military concepts and innovations, some of which have inspired real life research. The novel's most noted innovation is the powered armor exoskeletons used by the Mobile Infantry. These suits were controlled by the wearer's own movements, but powerfully augmented a soldier's strength, speed, weight carrying capacity (which allowed much heavier personal armament), jumping ability (including jet and rocket boost assistance), and provided the wearer with improved senses (infrared vision and night vision, radar, and amplified hearing), a completely self-contained personal environment, sophisticated communications equipment, and tactical map displays. Their powered armor made the Mobile Infantry a hybrid between an infantry unit and an armored one.
Whether directly inspired by Starship Troopers or not, the United States military has attempted to develop "real world" technology that would give the abilities of the MI's powered armor to its soldiers. Equipment which replicates many of the individual abilities of powered armor (night vision goggles, infrared goggles, and Global Positioning System locators) are now standard issue military equipment. Between 1996 and 2007, the U.S. Army conducted its Land Warrior research program, which would have given many of the MIs integrated communications and tactical intelligence abilities to United States infantrymen. However, the program funding was eliminated in the army's 2008 budget. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the United States Department of Defense has also spent some $50 million in an attempt to develop a powered exoskeleton in its Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program, although apparently without any significant breakthroughs or the release of battlefield versions of its prototypes.
Another concept the book pioneered was that of "space-borne infantry". The heavily mechanized units of M.I. troops were attached to interstellar troop transport spacecraft, which then delivered them to planetary target zones, by dropping groups of Mobile Infantrymen onto the planet surface from orbit via individual re-entry capsules (hence the book's slang term "cap troopers" for M.I. troops). The uses for such a force—ranging from smash-and-burn raids, to surgical strikes, conventional infantry warfare, and holding beachheads—and the tactics that might be employed by such soldiers are described extensively within the novel. The weapons, tactics, training, and many other aspects of this futuristic elite force are carefully detailed: everything from the function of the armored suits themselves, to the need for multiple variants of powered armor, to the training of personnel in both suit operations and the specialized unit tactics that would be needed, to the operational use of the suits in combat.
While powered armor is Starship Troopers' most famous legacy, its influence extends deep into contemporary warfare. Almost half a century after its publication, Starship Troopers is on the reading lists of the United States Marine Corps, and the United States Navy. It is the only science fiction novel on the reading lists at three of the five United States military branches. When Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers the United States military was a largely conscripted force, with conscripts serving two year hitches. Today the U.S. military has incorporated many ideas similar to Heinlein's concept of an all-volunteer, high-tech strike force. In addition, references to the book keep appearing in military culture. In 2002 a Marine general described the future of Marine Corps clothing and equipment as needing to emulate the Mobile Infantry.
To Heinlein's surprise, Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960. By 1980, twenty years after its release, it had been translated into eleven different languages and was still selling strongly. However, Heinlein complained that, despite this success, almost all the mail he received about it was negative and he only heard about it "when someone wants to chew me out."
The main literary criticism against Starship Troopers is that it is nothing more than a vehicle for Heinlein's political views. John Brunner compared it to a "Victorian children's book" while Anthony Boucher, founder of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, remarked that Heinlein had "forgotten to insert a story." Alexei Panshin complained that the novel was overly simplistic—"[an] account of the making of a [Marine] … and nothing more"—and that the characters were simply mouthpieces for Heinlein: "At the end you know nothing of [Rico's] tastes, his likes and dislikes, his personal life. The course of the book changes him in no way because there is nothing to change — Rico remains first and last a voice reading lines about how nice it is to be a soldier.… The other characters are even more sketchy, or are simple expositions of an attitude." Richard Geib adds "The real life 'warriors' I have known are all more multi-faceted than anyone we meet in Starship Troopers. And the ones I know who have killed are much more ambivalent about having done so." He further complained about the almost complete lack of sexuality among the characters and the absence of any serious romance.
By contrast, in a 2009 retrospective, Jo Walton finds Starship Troopers "military SF done extremely well." "Heinlein was absolutely at his peak when he wrote this in 1959. He had so much technical stylistic mastery of the craft of writing science fiction that he could do something like this and get away with it." "It’s astonishing that [Starship Troopers is] still controversial now, fifty years after it was first published," and "Probably [Heinlein would] have been delighted at how much the book has made people think and argue." 
Another complaint about Starship Troopers is that it is either inherently militaristic or pro-military. There was a two-year debate in the Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies (PITFCS) that was sparked by a comparison between a quote in Starship Troopers that "the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war's desolation" (paraphrase of the fourth stanza of "The Star-Spangled Banner") and the anti-war poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen. Dean McLaughlin called it "a book-length recruiting poster." Alexei Panshin, a veteran of the peacetime military, argued that Heinlein glossed over the reality of military life, and that the Terran Federation-Arachnid conflict existed simply because, "Starship troopers are not half so glorious sitting on their butts polishing their weapons for the tenth time for lack of anything else to do." Joe Haldeman, a Vietnam veteran and author of the anti-war Hugo- and Nebula-winning science fiction novel The Forever War, similarly complained that Starship Troopers unnecessarily glorifies war. Others have pointed out that Heinlein never actually served in combat, having been a Naval Academy graduate who was medically discharged for a tuberculosis infection and spent World War II as a civilian doing research and development at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Defending Heinlein, George Price argued that "[Heinlein] implies, first, that war is something 'endured,' not enjoyed, and second, that war is so unpleasant, so desolate, that it must at all costs be kept away from one's home." In a commentary on his essay "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?", Heinlein agreed that Starship Troopers "glorifies the military ... Specifically the P.B.I., the Poor Bloody Infantry, the mudfoot who places his frail body between his loved home and the war's desolation — but is rarely appreciated... he has the toughest job of all and should be honored." The book's dedication also reads in part "... to all sergeants everywhere who have labored to make men out of boys." However, he thoroughly disagreed that Starship Troopers was militaristic, arguing that the military personnel in the Terran Federation were not allowed to vote while on active duty — since "the idiots might vote not to make a drop" — and that the military was thoroughly despised by many civilians. Interestingly, Heinlein also received some complaints about the lack of conscription in Starship Troopers (the military draft was the law in the United States when he wrote the novel). Heinlein was always vehemently opposed to the idea of conscription (calling conscripts "slave soldiers" and arguing that a nation which was not able to find volunteers to fight for it did not deserve to endure).
Another accusation is that the Terran Federation is a fascist society, and that Starship Troopers is therefore an endorsement of fascism. These allegations have become so popular that Sircar's Corollary of Godwin's Law states that once Heinlein is brought up during online debates, "Nazis or Hitler are mentioned within three days." The most visible proponent of these views is probably Paul Verhoeven, whose film version of Starship Troopers portrayed the Terran Federation's personnel wearing uniforms strongly reminiscent of those worn by the Third Reich-era Wehrmacht; but Verhoeven admits that he never finished reading the actual book. Most of the arguments for this view cite the idea that only veterans can vote and non-veterans lack full citizenship; moreover, only veterans are permitted to teach history, and children are taught that moral arguments for the status quo are mathematically correct. Federal Service is not necessarily military, although it is suggested that a certain hardship and discipline is pervasive. According to Poul Anderson, Heinlein got the idea not from Nazi Germany or Sparta, but from Switzerland.
Defenders of the book usually point out that although the electoral franchise is limited, the government of the Terran Federation is democratically elected. There is freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of conscience. The political system described in the book is multiracial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. The protagonist Juan Rico is Filipino and others in his training group are American, Armenian, Japanese, German, Australian, and Turkish, or Arab, and one or two have recognizably Jewish last names. Many also argue that Heinlein was simply discussing the merits of a "selective versus nonselective franchise." Heinlein made a similar claim in his Expanded Universe. The novel makes a related claim that "[s]ince sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility — we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life — and lose it, if need be to save the life of the state. The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert."
More recently, the book has been analyzed as a utopia (in the sense of a society that does not, and cannot, exist), and that while Heinlein's ideas sound plausible, they have never been put to the test and are, actually, impractical or utopian. This criticism has been leveled by the likes of Robert A. W. Lowndes, Philip José Farmer, and Michael Moorcock. The latter wrote an essay entitled "Starship Stormtroopers" in which he attacked Heinlein and other writers over similar "Utopian fiction." Lowndes accused Heinlein of using straw man arguments, "countering ingenuous half-truths with brilliant half-truths." Lowndes further argued that the Terran Federation could never be as idealistic as Heinlein portrays it to be because he never properly addressed "whether or not [non-citizens] have at least as full a measure of civil redress against official injustice as we have today". Farmer also agreed, arguing that a "world ruled by veterans would be as mismanaged, graft-ridden, and insane as one ruled by men who had never gotten near the odor of blood and guts."
However, this issue is still controversial, even among the book's defenders. James Gifford points to several quotes as indications that the characters assume Federal Service is military; for instance, when Rico tells his father he is interested in Federal Service, his father immediately explains his belief that Federal Service is a bad idea because there is no war in progress, indicating that he sees Federal Service as military in nature, or not necessary to a businessman during peacetime. Some Federal Service recruiters wear military ribbons, and a term of service "is either real military service... or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof." Moreover, the history of Federal Service describes it as being started by military veterans who did not originally allow civilians to join and are not described as allowing them to join later. Gifford decides, as a result, that although Heinlein's intentions may have been that Federal Service be 95% non-military, in relation to the actual contents of the book, Heinlein "is wrong on this point. Flatly so."
The supposedly racist aspects of Starship Troopers involve the Terrans' relations with the Bugs and the Skinnies. Richard Geib has suggested that Heinlein portrayed the individual Arachnids as lacking "minds or souls... killing them seems no different from stepping on ants." Both Robert Peterson and John Brunner believe that the nicknames "Bugs" and "Skinnies" carry racial overtones, Brunner using the analogy of "gook" while Peterson suggested that "not only does the nickname 'Bugs' for the arachnids of Klendathu sound too much like a racial slur — think of the derogatory use of the word 'Jew' — but Heinlein's characters unswervingly believe that humans are superior to Bugs, and that humans are destined to spread across the galaxy."
Robert A. W. Lowndes argues that the war between the Terrans and the Arachnids is not about a quest for racial purity, but rather an extension of Heinlein's belief that man is a wild animal. According to this theory, if man lacks a moral compass beyond the will to survive, and he was confronted by another species with a similar lack of morality, then the only possible result would be warfare.
Starship Troopers influenced many later science fiction stories, setting a tone for the military in space, a type of story referred to as military science fiction. John Steakley's novel Armor was, according to the author, born out of frustration with the small amount of actual combat in Starship Troopers and because he wanted this aspect developed further. Conversely, Joe Haldeman's anti-war novel The Forever War is popularly thought to be a direct reply to Starship Troopers, and though Haldeman has stated that it is actually a result of his personal experiences in the Vietnam War, he has admitted to being influenced by Starship Troopers. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is also thought by many to have been either a direct response to or influenced by Starship Troopers. Card has flatly denied this, saying that he never read the novel and did not read The Forever War until after writing Ender's Game. Harry Harrison wrote a satirical book called Bill, the Galactic Hero which he described as "a piss-take on Heinlein's Starship Troopers." John Scalzi's novel Old Man's War is, according to the author, explicitly patterned after Starship Troopers. In recent years, John Ringo's series Legacy of the Aldenata (also known as the Posleen series) featured a more explicit homage to Heinlein's book. In 1987, a Choose Your Own Adventure-style interactive book set in the Starship Troopers universe, Combat Command in the World of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers: Shines the Name by Mark Acres, was published by Ace Publishers.
The 1986 James Cameron film Aliens incorporated themes and phrases from the novel, such as the terms "the drop" and "bug hunt", as well as the cargo-loader exoskeleton. The actors playing the Colonial Marines were also required to read Starship Troopers as part of their preparation prior to filming.
The film rights to the novel were licensed in the 1990s. The first film, also titled Starship Troopers, was directed by Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall) and released in 1997. The film diverged greatly in terms of the themes and plot of the novel, and received mixed reviews from critics. A sequel followed in 2004, titled Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, and another in 2008, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. An animated series, Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, which took inspiration from both the novel and the first film, was started in 1999 and lasted for 37 episodes.
In 1976, Avalon Hill published Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, a map-and-counter board wargame featuring a number of scenarios as written in the novel. In 1997, as a tie-in with Verhoeven's film adaptation, they published Starship Troopers: Prepare For Battle! which entirely focused on the film. Starship Troopers: The Miniatures Game, a miniature wargame which used material from both the novel and the film was published by Mongoose Publishing in 2005. In 1982, Radio Shack/Tandy published Klendathu by Leo Christopherson for the TRS-80 Model I/II/III. In 1998, Mythic Entertainment released Starship Troopers: Battlespace which was available to America Online subscribers. The game, in which players battled each other in overhead space combat, allowed players to assume either Klendathu or Federation roles. In 2000, Blue Tongue Entertainment released the top-down real-time tactics video game Starship Troopers: Terran Ascendancy. A first-person shooter game titled Starship Troopers was released November 15, 2005, based on Paul Verhoeven's film version rather than on Heinlein's novel. It was developed by Strangelite and published by Empire Interactive. Starship Troopers is also thought to have influenced numerous computer games including Tribes, Tribes 2, StarCraft, and Crysis.
Dark Horse Comics, Mongoose Publishing and Markosia have held the license to produce comic books based on Starship Troopers. Over the years they have been written by writers like Warren Ellis, Gordon Rennie and Tony Lee.
A Case of Conscience
by James Blish
|Hugo Award for Best Novel
A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein is a controversial science fiction novel that received a Hugo Award in 1960 and is the only science fiction novel on the reading lists of four out of five of the United States military academies, as well as the official reading lists of the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps. It has been in continuous print since its first printing in 1959.