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Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Penguin
Published: 1959
Review Posted: 3/31/2008
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 9 out of 10

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein

Book Review by Stuart Clark

Have you read this book?

Having seen Paul Verhoeven's cinematic working over of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, I sat down with what is arguably one of SF's classic reads thinking I knew what to expect. I was to be proved quite wrong. "Working over" is not a misnomer for Verhoeven's movie, since it does not hold very true to the novel and as a result, reading the book gave me a whole new Starship Troopers experience.

Troopers is told through the eyes of Juan "Johnnie" Rico, a young man who enlists in the army more to gain citizen status and voting rights than exercise any desire to serve Earth as a soldier. For the most part, the book describes Rico's progression through basic training and the trials and exercises he and the other cadets are forced to endure as they progress towards becoming full blown soldiers. Their instructors are veterans of the bug war, limited now to training the cadets due to horrific wounds and disabilities sustained whilst in the front line of combat. As the vets put the recruits through their paces, one thing becomes clear, the soldier of tomorrow will not be able to rely on weapons and brute strength - with a rocket powered suit which augments every movement and a lethal arsenal of weapons to hand, these troopers need to be a cut above the rest if they ever hope to make it. The attrition rate is high, but so is the desire to become a citizen and there are plenty more recruits in line.

Rico will be one of the few to graduate from his round of intake and soon finds himself assigned to the mobile infantry (MI), the foot soldiers, or grunts if you like, of the Terran army. Whilst going through basic training, he has been somewhat sheltered from the world(s) outside and is told little of the bug war which is escalating in scale. That is quickly rectified though, and within weeks of earning his "chevrons" Rico will find himself fighting on a bug occupied planet and facing the enemy first hand.

First published in 1959, Heinlein's "Troopers" has been controversial from the outset. The novel has been accused of being pro-war, anti-war, even pro-fascist but I didn't get that sentiment from it at all. If anything, Heinlein's rhetoric suggested an underlying socialist tone. Rico is a likeable character and the story told from his point of view instills empathy in the reader. One can't help but feel that after his initial decision to enlist he is then relatively powerless to stop himself being swept along on a path that takes him from reluctant recruit to career soldier. But the far more interesting characters for me were Mr. Dubois and Major Reid, Rico's high school and army teachers of history and moral philosophy. Both seemed to be Heinlein's moral sounding board when it came to issues of society as a whole.

It is clear to see where the pro-fascist accusations come from. In "Troopers" Terran society is governed by war veterans which, on face value, sounds much like a pro-war dictatorship, but the Dubois and Reid characters lecture the students as to why this is a good thing. The individuals of the government have earned the right to govern through their selfless actions, indeed, only those who care enough about society as a whole to the extent that they are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend it, should have any say (whether it be through the vote or government), in its future. On reading, I couldn't help but feel like these two character's gave voice to Heinlein's thoughts and frustrations about society. Frustrations that could easily be transposed to today.

It came as no surprise to me that Heinlein was a navy veteran. The descriptions of basic training are gritty and realistic, even given their futuristic slant, and the book itself, written in the first person, reads more like a diary than a novel. The science is well done, the description of armored, powered suits was fascinating and the combat scenes, though few and far between, give a healthy dose of action to keep the story rolling along

With a title like Starship Troopers, it's easy to think that this is a pulpy action novel about war, but for me, the war aspect of "Troopers" was more of a backdrop to a story about individuals and their responsibility to society. When I first started reading it, I wasn't too enamoured with the story because I was expecting something quite different, but in hindsight, it is easy to see why "Troopers" is a classic. Recommended.
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