“Starship Troopers” is probably the seminal “Fightin’ Space Marine” story. It’s the cornerstone of a whole subgenre of Science Fiction, and it’s almost universally regarded as one of the best novels of Robert Heinleins’ entire career.
I really don’t like it though.
For the record: I increasingly hate Heinlein mostly because I unreservedly loved him when I was younger. Cut my eye teeth on his books, and identified (Way too much in retrospect) with his ‘aw shucks’ version of self-superiority (“It’s not that I’m so great, it’s just that everyone else in the universe is a waste of skin.”) Let’s not get into that now. I’m just putting it up here to acknowledge my obvious bias.
The important thing to take away here is that even when I was younger and adored ol’ Bob, I still didn’t like this book. I couldn’t get through it. From high school through the end of college, I started and gave up on it over and over again. In my twenties, I finally bit the bullet and just poured through the whole thing once and for all. Predictably, I didn’t like it. I just don’t think it’s a very good book, and I am mystified by the adoration people have for it. I mean, hell, there’s a “Starship Trooper” suite on a Yes album. Not a song, mind you, but an actual ten-minute suite. And it’s not a crappy Yes album, either, it’s one of the good ones before they became an embarrassment to themselves and others. Seriously: what the frack is up with that?
Recently, I read Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” which got me on a Fightin’ Space Marine kick, which led to “The Forever War,” which led to me reluctantly deciding to re-read “Trooper,” despite my dislike from twenty years before.
I hauled the book out, I read the first chapter, and I thought, “Wow, you know, that was pretty kickass! Maybe I’ve misjudged Bob. Perhaps I’ve been unfair. I mean, yeah, his first book was possibly the worst first book ever written by a human being, but to his credit he seemed to know it and didn’t want it published. And yeah, his later stuff is all basically him talking about how great he is for hundreds of pages at a time while spanking it and talking about how much he wants to sleep with his mom. So, yeah, both ends of the career are a total wash. Just the shame, I did used to see something in the guy, right? I mean, he can’t compare with a real writer from the period, but he wasn’t utterly without talent, he’s certainly the best of the “Engineer Writers” from the mid-20th century, and one of the few who seemed to wrap his brain ‘round the concept that you needed to have an actual story in your story.” (Compare Arthur C. Clarke or S. Fowler Wright for authors who never grasped that).
So I read the first chapter and a little glimmering of my 12-year-old-boy love for all that is sciency and spacey came back, and I thought, “Damn, this is my old friend! I haven’t seen him in thirty years! This guy’s good!”
And then I read Chapter Two, and it all fell to crap again. Heinlein Sucks. That’s all there is to it.
Bad book, bad writer. If that’s what you’re looking for, the review is done. Go home.
If you’re more interested in *why* it’s a bad book, here’s the rundown:
Chapter 1: Really, really, really cool Fightin’ Space Marine battle, probably the best one ever written up to that time. (20 pages)
Chapter 2: Flashback to high school, when Protagonist discusses arcane matters of social theory, then randomly decides for utterly stupid reasons to join the military (20 pages) These are, in fact, supposed to be stupid reasons.
Chapter 3: Basic training. As this is modestly interesting, Heinlein brings it in at 10 pages.
Chapter 4: More of same. 10 pages, but not at all interesting..
Chapter 5: A dumbass gets himself court martialed, which takes 17 pages while we have the military justice system explained to us.
Chapter 6: 18 pages during which a sergeant and an officer discuss how broken up they are over the fact that they spent the preceding 17 pages during which they go into the philosophy of military justice and blah blah blah.
Chapter 7: Protagonist describes the powered servo-armor combat suits they wear for 9 pages. This was undoubtedly far cooler in the day than it is now. I mean, we’ve all seen Iron Man, right? Or a zillion Anime mighty-fighty-robot shows. It’s a cliché now, but this is the genesis of it. It lacks impact nowadays in all but an historical sense, but back then it was cool. Of course since it’s modestly interesting, Heinlein keeps it as short as possible. He’s not actually interested in being interesting, he just wants to rail on about how he feels the world and the army should be run. Just to make that perfectly clear, we’re now 108 pages into the book, nearly halfway through, and the only genuinely neat-o-keen-o stuff is in the beginning. “Well,” you think, “We’re building up to it.” Oh, how wrong you are!
Chapter 8: 21 pages on military discipline, floggings (He’s for ‘em!), and the death penalty for rapists. Can’t really argue against that, but it’s all so talky and nothing happens.
Chapter 9: 8 Pages about basic training. Every bit as dull as the previous 90 or so pages about basic training.
Chapter 10: 15 pages on the protagonists’ 1st assignment, during which nothing interesting happens, but we‘re told the pecking order on ship in great detail.
Chapter 11: The flashback that started in Chapter 2 FINALLY ends, and pick up the story from the end of the battle in Chapter 1. “Ha! Now it’ll finally get rolling!” No. Mostly we just talk about how command of the squad is re-organized in the wake of the casualties they took.
Chapter 12: THIRTY SIX PAGES of Officers Candidate School! Thirty Six Pages! This is basically the Basic Training sections replayed in case you weren’t paying attention, only it’s more boring as they’ve taken out the floggings and court martials and random walking around stuff (None of which was all that interesting to begin with) and they’ve replaced it with a whole lot of half-assed social theories. It just goes on and on and on, and it won’t stop.
Chapter 13: When it finally does stop, it gets even worse. The next chapter is 58 pages, the first half of which is entirely dedicated to explaining the technical order by which a platoon is organized, who has what post, what rank, what file, and so on. It is every bit as dull as reading an instruction manual. Duller, actually, because you’re forced to realize at some point that Heinlein actually decided the instruction manual wasn’t good enough, and went through and re-thought all the trivia himself.
Now, I don’t mean this in the sense of “We need suppressing fire from this corner more often, so it makes sense to keep the gunners behind the guidon in marching formations.” No. Nothing so non-arcane. He’s talking about who should be in charge of getting the correct kind of butter for platoon pick nicks, and where thus and so should bunk when he’s off duty, and who is in charge of recycling waste paper and so on.
Am I exaggerating? Probably, but to be honest, I couldn’t tell. After 201 pages of a space adventure book that lacks all adventure, and is actually just “Heinlein’s Republic,” I was fading fast. 25 pages of him jacking off like a filthy monkey about the chain of command among noncoms was really just more than I could bear. I read it, of course, but my eyes glazed over. Yeah, it really is that dull.
When the fighting actually starts, you actually almost stumble upon it. Up to this point, the chapters have all been kind of thematically cohesive – this one’s about this, that one’s about that – and they don’t mix. This one does, for some reason. Then we’re dropped into another combat sequence. I honestly don’t think Heinlein wanted it in there, and it’s not nearly as good as the battle sequence at the start of the book. Also, it ends really abruptly with the protagonist getting knocked out and waking up and being told what happened.
“I couldn’t be bothered to actually finish the story, so here’s what I was thinking about doing,” basically.
Chapter 14: 3-page coda in which our hero, now fully fledged and formed, flies off into future battles that we don’t get to see.
The End. And who gives a crap, by this point?
Now, I recognize that I’m being uncommonly specific here, and I recognize that my complaint is mostly that this is boring, but let’s be honest here: This is a book about Fightin’ Space Marines. Is it too much to ask that they actually do some fightin’? My copy is 263 pages long, and I’d say 35 of them actually involve any action. Talk about bait-and-switch!
What we get instead is, as I said above, “Heinlein’s Republic.” This is not a novel so much as a dialectic on how the military, and to a larger extent civilization, should be run. The book is all about philosophy, and I have nothing against that, nor do I have anything against boring. Nor do I have anything against boring philosophy. I’m basically religious, so I’m well acquainted with both. Also: I like Russian Novels. Somebody wants to ramble on about the meaning of life, or whether or not there’s a God, or whether or not it matters whether or not there’s a God, I’m on board. I like that stuff.
What Heinlein has done here, however, is manage to avoid pretty much *any* interesting questions of human existence, and instead obsess over the proud traditions of Officers Candidate School rank pins, which must be returned to the school after the cadet is done with them, live or dead. A full history of the pins is kept on file, and will be rattled off at the drop of a hat. Not that anyone’s likely to drop their hats, as that would imply something exciting going on, and as I’ve pointed out: Heinlein is dead-set against allowing anything interesting into his book.
So what we’re dealing with here isn’t a traditional ‘boring’ per se. I’m fully conversant in ‘boring.’ Boring and I are old friends. No. This is not Russian-Level Boring, nor even “Arcane Gnostic Historical Studies”-level boring. No, this is an entirely new, advanced level of boring that really didn’t exist before. This is 200 pages of a navy guy who *NEVER* saw combat telling Marines how they should live. It’s like the drunk old guy at the VFW who can’t shut up about how he’d’a won Korea if it’d been left up to him.
Heinlein is the most Mary-Sue of all writers of his generation. Every character is him, to a greater or lesser extent. While this is true of all authors to some degree, Heinlein really sometimes seems to believe that it’s only right to be him, and the rest shouldn’t be allowed. He’s fairly “I ain’t nuthin’ special” about this, so it’s easy to miss, but the closer you look the more you realize that this isn’t so much a book as it is a man madly obsessed with his own genius basking in his own reflected glory, and begging people to pay homage to him.
Oddly, they do.
And his philosophy, such as it is, is so amazingly half-assed. In a nutshell:
1) Voting is too important to be allowed for everyone.
2) You only get to vote if you’re a veteran, or have done equivalent service. But being a veteran is better. But it’s not fascist or anything. For some reason. We’re told.
3) Life is miraculously better for everyone pretty much forever. Hooray!
Yeah. The rest of the book – and I can not sufficiently articulate this – is basically a guy writing his Fake Military Rule Book with one hand and shootin’ putty at the moon with the other. This is the most onanistically self-obsessed mouth-breathing RPG game master piece of crap ever committed to paper. “Tee-hee-hee! Everyone will acknowledge what a genius I am if they see how I’ve managed to remove line officers from the equation entirely!”
I can not express what a complete waste of time this novel is. As entertainment, as philosophy, even as a paperweight, on every level you can think of, the book completely fails. (Ayn Rand’s stuff is somewhat less awful, and VERY good as a paperweight or doorstop).
“Ah,” some of you say, “But this book has been required reading at all of the military academies at one point or another, so obviously it must be good.” Well, don’t strain your adenoidal voice, I’ll admit what you say is true. But here’s the question: WHY was it required reading at the academies?
I mean, Shakespeare is required reading, too. Is Nazi Bob required reading for the same reasons as ol Wild Bill? No, probably not. Mein Kampf has been required reading on occasion, too. Important to know the philosophical errors related to Nazism. Would “Starship” be required reading for the same reason as Mr. Adolph’s Wild Ride? No, probably not. Is it required for historical reasons, like Caesar’s Gallic Wars? No? Hm. Is it required for the same reason an engineering textbook might be required? Again, no.
So why HAS it been required? I honestly don’t know, but I have two non-mutually-exclusive theories:
1) As much of what the peacetime military does involves strategies for organizing things, this book might be useful for looking at other ways to do it.
2) Given that it has a (slight) narrative, it might be considered candy to keep students interested. “Well, they’ve done 1000 pages of the organizational structure of the Byzantine empire during the age of Vikings, so let’s give ‘em something to let ‘em relax for a day.”
In any event, whether or not it’s been required at the academies, and whether or not it’s required reading now (I don’t believe it is at any of ‘em), that’s a pretty sad justification for a book. “Well, it’s unreadable, but your tax dollars force some people to read it anyway.” It’s just terrible.
Ultimately it’s a couple hundred pages of a self-proclaimed genius solving all the problems of the world without ever realizing that his genius is just self-congratulatory dumbassery.