Tuesday, January 15, 2008

SPOTLIGHT: Catching up with the Classics - Starship Troopers

So, here's the new "feature" at the Blog o' Stuff. Once a month (at the very least, I hope), I'll be taking a look at a classic book or novel from the Fantasy/Science Fiction genres. This will either be a book I haven't read in a while, or the case of in this installment's book Starship Troopers, a classic I have yet to read. How can I never have read this book? I just never got around to it, simple.

What I can I say about one of the most famous, acclaimed, influential, popular, and important Science Fiction books of all time and a Hugo winner, to boot? What can I add to all the words that have been extolled or exhorted in frustration? I don’t know, except for my opinion and my own response. Suffice it to say, it is virtually impossible to open up this book and read it for the first time without knowing about it, its reputation, or having some preconceived notions.

Much of the novel deals with Johnny Rico’s experiences in the Mobile Infantry and how he deals with the equivalent of boot camp in the future. Heinlein basically paints a picture of the life of one volunteer in what amounts to the Space Marines. Throughout, Rico’s thoughts about life, politics become shaped by his training, his superiors, his “drops,” and the battles in which he engages with the “Bugs.” He goes from one who is unsure of his thoughts to a man with strong-held convictions, and in this sense, the story works as a coming-of-age story.

One thing that surprised me as I was reading the book was how little action and science-fictiony stuff happens for the better part of the novel. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think the best science fiction novels, like this one, have an utterly human quality to them. Even if Johnny Rico serves as something of a mouthpiece for Heinlein (as some have said), the character comes across as genuinely human.

Another part of the story that surprised me was the nonchalance with which Rico reacts to the attack of the Bugs and the beginnings and of the Bug War. Despite Rico losing his mother and the momentary grief he experienced because of it, the attack and break out of the war are dealt with very matter-of-factly. I understand that Rico and his peers are training for war, but there didn’’t seem to be any kind of panic or any great swell of emotion when the Bugs attack Earth, or not as much as I would have expected.

I don’t know Heinlein’s writing well enough, but one item in particular struck me as very far sighted. Much of the novel, probably because it is in an unspecified future, has a timeless air about it. You get the sense that Heinlein was writing this both as a reaction to what he saw as well as a treatise as what he thought. One can also get the feeling that he wrote this book with the intention that it could ring true for many years to come, particularly the chapter where Rico describes something he takes for granted, what most people of that time take for granted, and something that has become a staple of the Military Science Fiction genre – Power Armor:

No need to describe what it looks like, since it has been pictured so often. Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapos. … But the suits are considerably stronger than a gorilla. If an M.I. in a suit swapped hugs with a gorilla, the gorilla would be dead, crushed; the M.I. and the suit wouldn’t be mussed. (Page 100 Ace mmpb)

That description says more in the words it doesn’t use than it does in anything else. It allows the reader to visualize something big and powerful; something iconic. It doesn’t rigidly define the thing and allows the thing to stand the test of time.

Although (as I said) I’ve never read the book before now, I do know of its reputation and influence, it arguably spawned the entire Military Science Fiction subgenre. Half of the authors of Baen Books were likely heavily influenced by Heinlein, and this book specifically. As I was reading through the book, I recalled some of the books I’ve read and realized how they were influenced by Starship Troopers Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Mr. Scalzi admits to patterning his novel off Heinlein’s. Robert Buettner’s Orphanage* is a very similar story line (the alien enemies are Slugs, close enough to bugs for me), though a good book in its own right. Ender’s Game also has a strong similarity. The whole drop scene and group of Space Marines from the film Aliens were likely patterned after the Mobile Infantry. Look at any of the popular science fiction video games, many can trace their origins and influences back to this book.

Lastly, I have to believe Stanley Kubrick read Starship Troopers at some point in his life prior to making his war masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket. The depiction of boot camp is very similar and there is a point in both stories where they seem like two different novels/movies. As soon as Private Pyle blows off his head and Private Joker heads off to Viet Nam, it seems like a different film. Granted, Full Metal Jacket is an adapted screenplay so the source material may be structured this way, but Starship Troopers fits the mold, to a degree. The cut isn’t as drastic in Starship Troopers, but the tone of the book changes, at least in my internal reading voice, after Rico leaves.

Obviously, I can’t speak on how much the novel is “of its times” nor can I speak directly of how much validity there is that certain characters in the book are simply mouthpieces for Heinlein, I haven’t read all that much by him. What I can say is that the novel is very powerful and I agree with William Lexner’s sentiments – this is a must read and probably one of the five most important Science Fiction novels ever written. I’d go as far as to say one of the most important books written in the 20th Century considering it is on the reading list for three of the four US Military Academies.

I still haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not making any plans to watch or TiVo it. So, have I added anything to the discourse that has been going on about this book since its publication nearly 50 years ago**? Perhaps. If nothing else, it shows that the book is still effective to an experienced reader of the genre like myself.
In sum, I really enjoyed the book and am torn. On one hand, I feel I should have read it many years ago. On the other, I'm glad I just read it for the first time. I'm not sure what my next book will be for this "feature" but I certainly started it off with a bang.

* Buettner's next Jason Wander novel, Orphan's Destiny, publishes later this year through the new Orbit US imprint, which absorbed the WarnerAspect Science Fiction line. Good for Robert, the books are a lot of fun. The covers are redesigned and look very good, but I still like this original piece from Fred Gambino.

**I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of fancy 50th anniversary edition of the novel will be published next year.

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