I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Today we’re speeding on to the 1960s under the guidance of good ol’ Bobby Heinlein, our first repeat
offender author. Please don your Mobile Infantry Power Suit and ensure that all systems are operating normally as we continue on the bounce through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
Robert A. Heinlein
serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1959
published as a separate novel in 1959
The humans of the future don’t believe in universal suffrage. If you want to vote, you need to prove your worthiness to do so, by joining the Federal Service and working for the good of mankind. So upon graduating from high school, Johnny Rico finds himself recruited to the Mobile Infantry, an elite fighting force waging war against the ‘Bugs’ of Klendathu. But is citizenship worth the pain of military service? Or does life in the military hold an appeal of its own?
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
Heinlein’s Hugos, volume 2. Featuring: Militarism! Fascism! Corporal punishment! Racism! Heteronormativity! Utopia! Complete and utter lack of plot! Something for everybody to complain about!
Oh dear wallabies. While I was aware of the book’s controversial status, I didn’t actually bother to look up the specifics until after I’d read it. Although I identified most of the controversial parts for myself (and threw in one of my own – but then I seem to be one of the few people who recognizes that ‘Heinlein’ and ‘Heteronormative’ are actually the same word.)
I was a bit worried about starting Starship Troopers, since I knew it was so controversial and militaristic. So, just like with A Case of Conscience, I made a point of donning Schrödinger’s Reading Glasses before diving in. And, like Conscience, I found Starship Troopers to be interesting and thought-provoking and actually rather enjoyable.
One of the common criticisms of Starship Troopers is that there is no plot; it’s just a vehicle for Heinlein’s thoughts on the military and politics. But I’m surprisingly okay with that. Heinlein pulls no punches; he sets up his world, tells you how it works and why he (or at the very least, the people who inhabit it) think it’s such a good thing. This presentation, intentionally or not, allows the reader to study the argument and decide whether to accept or reject parts or all of it – or to keep thinking.
I’m not sure I agree with Heinlein’s ideal ‘meritocracy’; but I’m not sure I totally disagree with it either. I actually inferred the main argument well before it was explicitly stated – only veterans of the Federal Service can vote because only veterans have demonstrated an ability to put the needs of the group above their own needs. And you know what? It kind of makes sense.
Heinlein’s Federal Service is supposedly composed almost entirely of non-combat jobs, so in theory franchise is accessible through means other than war. There are, theoretically lots of ways to demonstrate one’s concern for the welfare of the whole to the exclusion of one’s own needs. Unfortunately, we’re never told much about what these other jobs are, other than maybe doing hard labor in unsafe environments. What about doctors and farmers and teachers? Police officers and firefighters? What kind of a job suitably demonstrates sufficient concern for society as a whole? Would I, as a science educator, be denied the right to vote because my job isn’t self-sacrificing enough?
I don’t like that idea. I want to teach because I love science and I want everybody to have equal access to, support, encouragement, and opportunity to succeed in the sciences if they so choose. This same idea influences my voting behavior; I vote for the candidate I think is most likely to work to combat the deeply ingrained systems of privilege and prejudice in our society. I vote for the candidate who I believe wants to make the world a better place for as many people as possible. But, according to Heinlein’s logic, am I qualified to cast such a vote, given that I’ve never been in a situation where I placed my life on the line for the survival of someone else?
By focusing on a character who joins (and glories in) being a member of the most rough-and-ready combat section of the Federal Service, and actually fighting in a war, Heinlein basically shoots himself in the foot in terms of the “it’s not just militarism!” argument. Military life is glorified at the expense of pretty much everything else. We don’t see “peacetime” military life; we don’t see the experience of a non-combat Federal Service member. We see THE MILITARY and its REGULATIONS and WAYS OF DOING THINGS and PATERNALISM and FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT BROTHERHOOD HOO-RAH!
Starship Troopers is narrated by a soldier, so perhaps this attitude is unavoidable. Never having served in the military, I can’t comment on the prevalence – or necessity – of such a belief. I do think, however, that it’s pretty common for people to feel a strong sense of the superiority of the groups with whom we identify. I personally think that educators are a group of seriously awesome and seriously under-appreciated individuals, because we are. Then again, as an educator, I’m exceptionally biased. (We’re still awesome people, though.) It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that soldiers and mail carriers and truck drivers and clergy and phlebotomists all feel the same way about the members of their chosen profession.
Speaking of the groups with whom we identify, it’s time for the social equality review!
Race: Johnny is from the Philippines! Other characters have surnames from every European nation imaginable, with Oriental and Amerindian surnames popping up occasionally! Okay, so we’re still missing Africa and the Middle East and most of Asia and Latin America and South America (Buenos Aires not withstanding) and all of Oceana! It saddens me that, this early in the Hugo Project, I still find European diversity and the inclusion of a few characters from former Spanish colonies/China/Japan exciting. There have been criticisms of the book as being racist against the alien characters (the “Skinnies” and the “Bugs”), but I don’t know. Yes, these aliens are being dehumanized through their derogatory nicknames – on the other hand, they aren’t human, and is racism the same as species-ism? Not to mention that groups have historically dehumanized the enemy, regardless of race – Brits calling the French “Frogs” and Americans calling the Germans “Jerrys.” So does the mere presence of a dehumanizing nickname indicate racism? As a white American, I’m really not qualified to say, so I’ll toss this one to you all. Is there a difference between the use of “Jerrys” and “Japs/Nips”? What about calling the Viet Cong “Charlie”? Calling Arabs “Towel-Heads” is clearly offensive; what about calling the French “Frogs” or the British “Lobsterbacks?” Also, we have now exhausted my knowledge of wartime ethnic slurs.
Gender/Sexuality: Oh, Heinlein. Apparently women make better pilots than men, which, cool, except that it only reinforces the idea that Men do Man Things and Women do Women Things, even if the lines are drawn differently so that some former Man Things are now Woman Things. How about People doing People things? Not to mention that we get maybe one line of dialog from a female character. Sexuality-wise, women are frequently referred to as ‘the reason we’re fighting’ and the male characters are always itching for a view of something with two X chromosomes. Because all Men love Women and do everything they do in hopes of getting to spend some time with that Elusive and Exotic Species of the Human Race.
Disabled/Other-abled: There are numerous characters with physical disabilities in Starship Troopers, although all of them are the result of combat injuries/accidents; no mention is made of individuals born with a disability or who may have contracted one due to illness. These men are praised because they take desk jobs, thus freeing up able-bodied men to fight. It’s presented as a sensible allocation of resources – we need men with fighting spirit to do both important jobs, so put the ones with strong bodies in the field and the ones who have been injured behind the desks – but it still feels like glorifying physical capability. Not to mention, what about individuals who have some sort of disability before they get the chance to volunteer for the Federal Service, and thus have no chance to join up and receive the right to vote?
In the end, it made me think. Which is what sci fi is supposed to do. Maybe we should take a moment to appreciate the irony of the fact that the two books which have intrigued this semi-pacifistic liberal hippie pagan the most were the ones about Catholicism and the military…
OVERALL RANKING: 8 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
Tune in next week for an extra-special bonus edition of the Hugo Project about the hysterically awful movie adaptation of Starship Troopers!