Fiction Reviews

Starship Troopers

(1959 / 2015) Robert A. Heinlein, Hodder, £9.99, pbk, 275pp, ISBN 978-1-473-61611-0

(1959 / 2016) Robert A. Heinlein, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 288pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21748-5


This is one of the classic military SF novels of the 20th century and to my mind is right up there with Joe Haldeman's truly excellent (if not better) The Forever War. It begins dropping the reader right in there amidst a combat zone. And when I say 'dropping' the reader is with the protagonist strapped in a drop capsule to be shot from an orbiting troop carrier down to the planet's surface for a raid against an alien skinny spaceport. And it is all go from the start…

However, chapter one is just a teaser introduction, the book effectively tells the story of Johnny Rico from his enlistment through training and then a tour of duty. Yes, Earth has expanded out into space and found other rival technological species. No-one is going to mess with us. No siree.

But this is not just a military SF novel: we get some back-story as to the life and culture of Earth. In the future a person has to earn the right for citizenship and so have the right to vote etc. One way to be granted the privileges of Citizenship is through having earned the right by fighting to protect society. It is also a future in which mankind no longer fights war among his own species but against aliens. And Johnny Rico has enrolled in the toughest and most efficient fighting force the world has ever seen. One enemy species in particular, a species of insect like hive/colony creatures, is in effect the ultimate communist race; an allusion the author himself refers to. Indeed, Starship Troopers does have a number of nationalistic traits typically associated with the political Right. This does not mean that Heinlein set out to write an overtly political book – rather it is an attempt to portray, in true SF style, a better society than ours, albeit one under adversity. Having said that Heinlein did have an interest in politics and did serve in the US navy. This does make me wonder (and this is pure speculation on my part) whether returning to civilian life he found both some of the views of the non-combatant public a bit namby-pamby, or whether he felt that some civilians did not fully appreciate the sacrifice that soldiers made. Remember, in the US – and Heinlein came from the USA – the civilian population were not on the frontline as were the Brits in WWII's Blitz: for us WWII was not fought on some far-flung, distant country: it was fought on our land and in our skies as well as a short hop away across the Channel on neighbouring mainland Europe.

Though Starship Troopers is a classic SF novel of the latter half of 20th century, I suspect that many of today's potential readers will come to the novel through the film (1997) that Paul (Robo Cop and Total Recall) Verhoven directed of the same name. Though drawing on some of the novel's characters and premise, it deviated significantly from the novel and importantly did not feature Heinlein's Starship Troopers' powered amour suits which turned troops into the supermen needed to combat the equally super aliens. This technology and the weaponry, were integral to the novel, but absent from the film: a big disappointment. Though the film did convey the way the novel placed the military within the future Earth's right-wing culture.

In 2003 Phil Tippett directed a follow-up film, Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Foundation, that centred on one specific on-planet military engagement. This was a basic, if not functional, action film. Then in 2008 Edward Neumeir directed Starship Troopers 3: Marauder that had more the feel of the first film (though not the novel) but it did introduce the combat suits, though the overly fundamentalist and simplistic Christian overtones at the ending substantially marred matters.  Finally, Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles was a CGI animated television series based on both the novel by Robert A. Heinlein and the 1997 film adaptation by Paul Verhoeven (who served as executive producer for the series).

But this is taking us away from the novel. Its importance in the SF landscape should not be underrated: the book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960. Heinlein was in the latter half of the 20th century considered one of the top three living SF authors in the world: the other two being Asimov and Clarke. The novel was serialised in The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy in 1959 before being published in the US. The following year (1960) it was published over here by Hodder & Stoughton. Hodder – bless 'em – helped the novel alive with a new 2015 paperback edition, as have Gollancz in 2016 with a hardback and including it in their SF Masterwork series.  Yes, the novel does have a right wing, imperialistic approach. As such readers, especially younger readers, need to have their wits about them; though there is nothing wrong with exposing the young to challenging politics as long as they recognise that all politics needs to be challenged.  But, at the end of the day, the original novel Starship Troopers is cracking and better than the 1997 film (as good as that was). It is a proverbial 'must read' for any SF enthusiast seeking to be considered well-read in the genre.

Jonathan Cowie

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