18 April 2013

Review: Starship Troopers (book)

It wouldn't be right to judge a writer, especially a writer as famous as Heinlein, and with so many other significant works, based on just one book. But if I were to judge the author of Starship Troopers based on the book alone, with no other knowledge of him, I would surmise that he is stupid, naive, ignorant, egotistic and obnoxious.

The good

The most unequivocally positive thing I can say is that it's written skillfully. Or rather, it's not, really, not in the grand scheme of things. It's a quite shit book, in fact. But the prose itself is reasonably easy on your mind. I guess over the years, I got so used to godawful quality from genre fiction, that I stopped noticing it. Reading Starship Troopers, I quickly got a feeling of something is missing, except it wasn't that something was missing, but in fact it was not missing, whereas it had so often been missing before. That something being a prose style which doesn't require you to strain yourself to read it. I did strain myself while reading Starship Troopers, but I strained not to chuck away the book in disgust over the author's absurd "principles", not because reading it was the literary equivalent of chewing wood pulp.

It's still quite annoying to read. Perhaps it wasn't outlandish at the time, but Heinlein uses an odd sort of language and turns of phrase in a deliberate way which makes it clear how proud he is of his little cultural quirks. I think that for an adult, that's a very stupid thing to be proud of (and implies you lack any real virtues) and as a result there was a constant feeling of irritation while I read the book.

Starship Troopers probably also deserves the dubious honor of being responsible for the power armor trope, giving countless hack science fiction writers a very useful plot device, and just as many hack R&D "researchers" an effective myth for conning stupid laymen out of their money.


In psychology, they have something called the just world fallacy. You should know that psychology isn't really the study of the mind. It's the study of the 19-year old freshman psychology undergrad at American Ivy League universities who have been coerced into participating in experiments because it increases their Psychology 101 grade1. With this sort of framing, you can see how some theories can come out a tiny bit narrow.

The just world fallacy, like many psychological findings, is very familiar and intuitive when you learn about it. A moment of introspection yields piles of corroborating first-hand experience. But beyond that, anyone with any common sense will recognize related phenomena: Egoists, for instance, have a made-for-a-purpose world fallacy- they think it exists to please them, specifically.

There is considerable variance between our private world views of how the world is. Logically, we know that the universe is impersonal, uncaring and purposeless. But teleology is human instinct. It's very difficult to suppress it entirely, just as it would be to suppress the urge to yawn when sleepy, and just as pointless. However, an intelligent, educated, rational person learns to set it aside when serious, rational thinking needs to be done and not allow contamination. Those who do allow it can end up appearing quite ridiculous indeed.

There's fiction written with the conscious intent of making a point that the author considers important. In absence of such intent, it's sometimes possible to divine an author's particular world fallacy, courtesy of the little hints their subconscious drops for readers to find2. Moreso with poor writers-  it's a primitive habit, I don't think that morality plays of some guy's half-baked value system make for good stories.

The reason I mention all this is that with Starship Troopers, the world view is projected very strongly, and the nature of it is simplistic and offensive. Heinlein is basically obsessed with how wonderful his time in the military was, and the entire purpose off the book is to be one big ode to that.

Heinlein's experience working in the US Navy is not surprising at all from reading Starship Troopers. It's written in that hagiographic tone of someone who happened to, against all odds, enjoy the good military experience and keeps acting like because he made it, everyone else did too and if they disagree about how wonderful it was then they are lazy or ungrateful. He believes in this ridiculous myth of young lads from all walks of life, rich and poor, with no direction to their lives, joining up as starry-eyed idealists, going through hellish basic training which is so much worse than actual combat, because that's how the military's tough love is and that's how the military makes a man out of you, and then they valiantly fight and give it their honest best and rise through the ranks to become lieutenants at 25, and get cute, cultured wives with rich parents, and grow and mature and sneer at civilians because they are such sheep, not knowing what it's like to proudly serve in the almighty Army.

Heinlein never confronts, of course, the reality that military service is something people do when they are too dumb to get a proper job, when they don't know any better, where they do boring work, where they are subjected to official and unofficial psychological and physical abuse, where they get paid to be in harm's way only because the conflict makes money for the fat-cats sitting on top of the military-industrial complex. He ignores the fact that starting out as private and rising through the ranks is not something that happens, because it's fucking stupid to make a guy platoon commander for shooting a gun really well, while there's tons of guys who learned tactics and strategy for years coming out of the officer academy every year. It's left unmentioned that there's so many privates and only so few officer posts, and most people want to have a higher rank rather than lower, and statistically you're just not going to make it. His characters all have great military careers by author fiat, and then he has the gall to turn to you and say with a straight face and ask, "what fiat?"

Heinlein thinks the military is the best thing ever, because he was in the military in he had such a great time and he can't possibly imagine how anyone else could have had it any different. He's like the guy who won the lottery once, and now keeps preaching about what a great financial decision it was, and how if you didn't get rich too you just weren't trying hard enough.

What service isn't like

Reading the book is like listening to a stupid military man who thinks that just because he was some shitty grunt and did some busywork in the military, he suddenly knows everything about the military and how it's the most important thing in life (and thus knows everything important about life anyhow), and won't shut up with his stupid rants thanks to his conviction.

No, I mean, really, it's exactly like that. You know those pointless, boring autobiographies that random soldiers write? Nobody reads them, except people who worship soldiers, and even they only stare at the pages, they don't actually read it, think about it, they just use it as a prop to do their little ritual of Ave Milita. Because nobody could read it. War per se isn't glorious or interesting (unless you're one of the few who do glorious and interesting things in war). Nobody cares about how some random grunt got yelled at by asshole superiors and did dumb shit to pass the boredom.

Starship Troopers is just like that, except instead of "GI kit" it says "power armor" and instead of "ship" it says "spaceship" and instead of "zipperheads" it says "disgusting space bugs" (although I half suspect that Japanese, Chinese and Koreans were all basically like insects to Heinlein anyway, if he even bothered to distinguish the different kinds of "Asian"). And there's some batshit insane grandpa-fossil opinions on politics and morality sprinkled in.

I don't know why this is even science fiction. There's barely any actual science fiction3. Rico, the protagonist, won't tell us about how space combat tactics work- smarter heads than his worry about that and he's just a grunt. He won't say how the faster than light drives work, he saw this one cute mechanic girl in the mess hall once but that's the extent of his involvement with engines, and he was always too dumb for science stuff anyway, he's just a grunt. He won't even talk about how the power armor works or what the weapons are like. He's just a grunt. He doesn't know that stuff.

At least the movie had space violins. Fuck, if I had a violin
like that when I was a kid, I'd still be playing the violin!

Sure, in some autistic sense it's realistic. If he wasn't so dumb, he wouldn't have ended up as cannon fodder4. But let's be real here: The purpose of science fiction is to geek out about future shit. This is like hearing what Feynman's physics lectures were like- from the fucking Caltech janitor! What's even the point? Look, I'm not categorically opposed to a sci-fi writer who glosses over how the magic warp drive works if he just wants to write about something like space-laundry (though he better have have some top notch shit to say about space laundry). But there isn't any theme in Starship Troopers that's something which couldn't possibly have been relevant up until now and won't be in the near future, so it must be discussed in the context of speculation about the future. There's just Heinlein's shitty, wrong opinions on what government should be like, which are so stupid that nobody would take him seriously5, so he has to put them in a fairy tale fantasy6 for people to tolerate them.

If I had to sum up Starship Troopers in a sentence, it's basically Heinlein sucking the collective dicks of US armed forces. He starts off with an irrational premise that soldiers are the best. His description of the mobile infantry is basically the USMC as seen on propaganda and Hollywood movies. Basic training is a sadistic ordeal, but all the servicemen act like it is admirable and noble to torture and be tortured for no discernible reason, then wear it like a badge of honor. The training itself is ridiculously senseless and impractical, courses apparently chosen more for "hardcoreness" and "coolness" than what could be expected to matter for combat effectiveness.

At one point, a recruit questions the reason behind training with throwing knives. This provokes a bizarre lecture from the drill instructor:
"Well," answered Zim, "suppose all you have is a knife? Or maybe not even a knife? What do you do? Just say your prayers and die? Or wade in and make him buy it anyhow? Son, this is real - it's not a checker game you can concede if you find yourself too far behind."
Argument #1 is "backup weapon". Firstly, why is HQ is sending in their troops unarmed? You don't teach F-16 pilots to ram enemy planes on the off chance that they don't have missiles. The whole combat doctrine is built around having the equipment. It doesn't work without it. There's no point engaging when you don't have the advantage. Second, why is the primary weapon unreliable to begin with? And lastly, why not give them a real backup weapon, like a pistol, which is far more useful and needs much less additional training?
"But take the case you first mentioned; I'm you and all you have is a knife. That target behind me - the one you've been missing, number three - is a sentry, armed with everything but an H-bomb. You've got to get him . . . quietly, at once, and without letting him call for help." Zim turned slightly - thunk! - a knife he hadn't even had in his hand was quivering in the center of target number three. "You see? Best to carry two knives - but get him you must, even barehanded."
Ah, so it's for stealth kills. Couldn't they just... Uh... I dunno, use silencers? What if the enemy is too far out of gun range? Given that suited mobile infantry weigh several hundred kilograms and leap higher than buildings, I doubt you could sneak up into gun range very easily.

But regardless of the above, here's the real problem: In the book, the infantry are actually sent into the field with precisely 1 knife. What good is 1 throwing knife? A close combat, or utility knife I can at least understand. But what's the point of having 1 throwing knife? What happens if you need to take 2 sentries silently?

The knife isn't there as backup. It isn't there for silent kills. It's there, because it's a cool weapon fetishized by urban mythology of violence (that's why there's no close combat training- stabbing people is something common white trash thugs do, but throwing knives is for stone cold killers who are cool as fuck). Heinlein thinks that being a soldier is about self-improvement, philosophy, becoming a man, honing yourself into a warrior monk who has perfected the arts of warfare which have been deemed arbitrarily to be honorable.

Soldiers are unqualified workers who do shit jobs for low pay and thereby enable the government bully other governments. This is obviously not something to be proud of, and Heinlein really wants to be so very proud of his military days, so we get this bullshit about how soldiers are precise tools and blah blah blah.


Besides its gigantic hard-on for all things military, Starship Troopers also commits a grand sin of science fiction: Being about us, today, instead of the future.
Heinlein loves to mock and sneer at the 20th century. His characters call our democracies tragic, our culture misguided and blind, our demise inevitable. Supposedly, because we don't physically abuse our children for minor transgressions, we are unable to leave our house for fear of being killed by marauding gangs of juvenile delinquents (and in fact this has caused a total breakdown of our social order some 15 or more years ago- he says late 20th century).

His characters, and his world, are obsessed with the 20th century. They think the second world war was the most important war in history. They name ships after obscure world war one stories. Their references and quotes invariably point to the 20th century. Whenever they are interested in another time period, such as when Heinlein meaninglessly namedrops Caesar and De Bello Gallico to give himself the airs of credibility, they are always those which were popular during the 20th century.

I hate it when science fiction writers do this. We hear barely anything about their time, and their world's culture. What are that month's big movies? What's everyone reading? Which philosophers are fashionable? Which scientist has fallen out of favor? These things are the whole reason you would read science fiction in the first place, because you want to immerse yourself in the customs and ways of a completely different (future) world. But if hundreds or thousands of years into the future, everyone is still talking about the same things we talk about today, what's even the point of writing about that future? Might as well write about today! The reason why is, of course, that Heinlein's idiotic political ideas would be exposed for how ridiculous they are if placed in a contemporary setting. With his own universe, he needs to fear no cross examination of his rhetoric, which is why this piece of science fiction is so lacking in key science fiction merits: It's not written out of love for science fiction, but out of curmudgeonry.


I won't go in too much detail about it, but there are some very obvious problems with the politics in Starship Troopers.

First of all, the idea of restricting voting power: You've probably heard by now that in Starship Troopers, you only get a vote if you've volunteered for 2 years of military service. Any cynic worth his salt will find the idea of restricting voting rights attractive, I'm sure, but in the end, any human being with self respect will conclude that it's wrong for far too many reasons to name.

Second, if the military has all the voting power, who will represent interests of civilians? A taxpayer is arguably more good to the government than some 2-year grunt is, especially in peace time, so the system is an unstable equilibrium to begin with. What happens when some jarheads decide to raise the taxes on civvies? What about when a new law stipulates extra priviledges to children of veterans? Laws rapidly escalating the required time of service for citizenship, but only unless you have veteran connections or family? These things are overlooked because Heinlein thinks that just because you've shot a few people and gotten yelled at, you suddenly become supremely responsible.

But really, what's so special about veterans? Starship Troopers claims it's not that they are more intelligent or more moral, but that they have demonstrated, by enlisting, "willingness to put the common good before their own". This is preposterous. Serving in the military is not the only way of demonstrating altruism, nor does it always demonstrate it. A veteran has proven exactly one thing: He is willing to do a dangerous job for the right combination of money and post-employment prestige. And political power, if he's into that sort of thing.

There are also wholly unrelated factors which determine the appropriate size of a military. More military isn't always better- once you have enough, any more is a waste of money and any less and you're in trouble. This has nothing to do with how many citizens are interested in having political power and how many should have it. Coupling the two together is a crazy idea. Either the size of the military will not be optimal, or there will be people who want to have political power and want to earn it, but are unjustly denied their constitutional right (Heinlein thinks there's no such thing as rights because people can die sometimes). In fact, the book does say that nobody who wants to enlist is turned away, and they "find a job for everybody". Which means, if you're in a wheelchair, you get to be test subject for consequences of irradiation. Hurray for the handicapped! Guess no one likes them anyway, screw them.

And how does this "find everyone a job" thing work out anyway? What if technology advances to the point that the whole "military" is just strategists and drone pilots? What are they going to do with all the recruits who can't do it? Give every real soldier 5 volunteer butlers? Why aren't they doing all fighting with unmanned equipment? To give the fools who ended up in infantry something to do?


Starship Troopers is an easy to read book with poor characterization, storytelling, and practically everything.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
So basically, a Midwestern farmer who studied electronics engineering and served as an officer in the army? Well, that sure sounds familiar...

The thing with Heinlein, I'm afraid, is that he's so obsessed with how awesome he is, and how everyone else should be like him. He puts out these inane standards for what society and individuals should aspire to, they are invariably impractical and difficult, and they just happen to prescribe the exact same life that Heinlein is already living. And just to be extra safe for criticism, he uses the cop-out of "it's just fiction".

Starship Troopers is a novel written with a modicum of competence, a modest merit outstripped by its faults: It is an arrogant, overly reverent panegyric about the mid-20th century service in the American military, disguised with a thin veneer of pretense to be about science fiction. There are maybe two reasons to read it- either you've seen the far superior movie and just couldn't get enough of it, or you want to have read

Score: 2/5

1: Yes, I know I'm exaggerating. Fuck off, you miserable pedant.

2: Easier, in fact. With consciously pushed opinions, you don't know if they're genuine, but the subconscious doesn't seem to be much interested in deception.

3: I don't even know if there is all that much fiction. If Heinlein just sprinkled some space-y sounding nonsense in his preachy, boring "Maritime Memoirs"- hey, would've fooled me!

4: Before a combat mission, Rico and friends are clearly explained how they themselves have absolutely no value, but the equipment is quite expensive and should be protected. Wow, Rico, man! Your military life is so cool! It's amazing how tough everything was and how much people shat over you! I'm so in awe of your irrational decision to volunteer for this shit because you were too lazy and dumb to get a proper job!

5: That's future tense- no wonder this asshole didn't accomplish shit in politics, for all his idiotic rhetoric.

6: And Starship Troopers is science fantasy alright.