Like the two disconnected eyes of some monstrous oracle, these books look out of their respective time periods, casting forward to try and envision a future that could arise from contemporaneous events. One sings of nationalistic pride in service to the state, while the other firmly declares that war is a pointless and exploitative endeavor whose only benefit is the fostering of an unwieldy bureaucracy feeding on the health of its people. These books are diametrically opposed to one another, but each also serves as a counterpoint to the view of the other. Alone, they are excellent science fiction stories, both engaging to read and consisting of interesting worlds. But together they are balanced and enriched, giving a fuller perspective on the nature of war, the reasons people sign up to fight, and the cost (in human terms) of conflict.
I first read Starship Troopers, and decided part-way through that I should follow it up with The Forever War. I have never read either, but I knew the latter was a kind of response to the former. Despite their very real differences, the two novels follow a similar trajectory, and are both personal encapsulations of their respective writer’s views on war and the military. Robert Heinlein served in the Navy. Graduating from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1929, he would only serve 4 years before being discharged for medical reasons. Joe Haldeman was drafted into the Army in 1967 as a combat engineer, and he both served and was wounded in Vietnam. Both men wrote with authority about the military, but were coming at their experiences from two very different trajectories: one asked to serve and had a promising career cut short, the other was conscripted to fight in a war not of his choosing. One wrote his novel fifteen years after WWII, in a time of relative peace and stability, but with the ever-looming prospect of nuclear annihilation threatening the ease and tranquility of life in 1950s white America; the other wrote his novel in a time of deep political and social instability, when trust of the government was low, and deep fissures had formed over numerous sociopolitical issues.
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein – 5 stars (reviewed twice, 2.5 star average rating)
Written in 1959, Starship Troopers tells the story of space marine as he goes through boot camp and enters a war against an alien insectoid civilization. Interspersed throughout the narrative are philosophical discussions on the nature of war, service, and the power of the state. This book is almost a sociopolitical treatise wrapped up in a narrative, and this has been the cause of much of the criticism levied against the book. There’s no getting around the jingoistic feel and fascistic tendencies of the Utopian world presented here. But….I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. While there’s certainly an indictment of the unrestrained democratic tendencies of the 20th century, the point Heinlein appears to be making isn’t to replace democracy with a military junta or dictatorship. There is democracy in Starship Troopers, but it only comes after service to the state (and everyone is allowed to serve – regardless of physical capabilities). Once citizenship is earned, Citizens, having proven their devotion to the community, are granted the right to vote. This is the key difference between Citizen and Civilian. The protagonist, Johnny Rico, comes from a Civilian family who is apparently wealthy and respected, but incapable of participating in elections. Heinlein articulates his ideal governmental system: an amalgam of the military and democracy. While I wouldn’t label it “fascist”, it’s purely Utopian. In the real world, I would imagine it would be just as terrible. The presentation here is still fairly unappealing, despite the inclusivity of the system.
Corporal punishment is an integral part of the political system in Starship Troopers. The Terran Federation (the government) grew out of deep instability and turmoil at the end of the 20th century (that’s confoundingly partially the fault of social workers and child psychologists), which resulted in the downfall of Western civilization. The Federation that formed in its place used execution as a means of reigning in the excesses of the era, and the practice was maintained through the generations. While human life isn’t cheap in this book, the needs of the state definitely supersede the needs of the individual, and this is deemed as just and efficacious.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the novel is how liberal and welcoming the novel is. The protagonist is a Filipino, and women are not only in the military, but serve a vital and honorable role. This is a welcome relief from the other, more white bread science fiction of the era.
I’d also like to say a few words about the 1997 Paul Verhoeven film adaptation, because most of my foreknowledge of the book came from that. I hated the movie when it came out, though I was young enough that I didn’t fully grasp it’s irony and satire. I tried watching it a few years ago, and found it comparable to much of Verhoeven’s oeuvre: almost unwatchable garbage. I know it has a bit of a cult following, but it’s not a good movie. Sorry, if you’re one of its fans. But, if you’ve seen the movie and haven’t read the book – I will say that I think it can only loosely be described as an “adaptation”. It’s more of a garish parody of some of the utopian ideals, blown up and infused with fascist imagery for political commentary. Look, I may not agree with Heinlein’s presentation of the ideal sociopolitical system, but I see what he was going for, and can at least respect his effort to make sense of his world. But if you want an honest and intelligent condemnation of the ideals espoused here, well, it’s a good thing I can review one for you.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – 5 stars (not previously reviewed)
Written in 1974, this very much feels like a Vietnam memoir. There’s a cold vein of anger running through this book: anger at the indifference of military brass, anger at the wanton disregard for human life, anger at the futility of war, anger at the insensibility of bureaucracy, and anger at not being able to return to the home left behind by those who’ve left for foreign shores. But this anger is tightly controlled, and casually sprinkled throughout the narrative.
Where there’s a cool efficiency in Starship Troopers, The Forever War is about human civilization centered so completely on war, that the very purpose of the war is to keep the human economic system moving forward. Without war, the engine of human progress would grind to a halt.
Starship Troopers is about the State, from the vantage point of an individual. The Forever War is about the individual, through the lens of what the State does to him.
I do have views of this novel that aren’t centered around its opposition to Starship Troopers, however. I found the actual story more compelling, and the effects of interstellar travel and the time dilation that would occur a fascinating logistical dilemma. This book covers over a 1,000 years of objective time, versus a handful of years from the point of view of the protagonist, and traces his journey through boot camp and the beginning of the war through a millennia of conflict, the breadth of the galaxy, and the war’s conclusion. He returns to Earth hundreds of years in the future, only to be wholly unprepared for what faces him, and spends a near-eternity confusedly trying to understand the mores and shifting sexual proclivities of the human species. I found the book a little slow-going at first, but much more entertaining once I got into it.
Lastly, there are some common thematic tropes dealt with in a lot of these mid-century science fiction novels. The most perplexing, perhaps, is the near ubiquitous distrust and animosity towards psychology. Both of these books took a slanted view of the science, and Fahrenheit 451 (review forthcoming) does as well. Foundation, conversely, uses psychotherapy as one of it’s….foundational disciplines. While I haven’t read anything by L. Ron Hubbard, he also wrote during this time period, and was famously anti-psychiatry. And, of course, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962. I’m not terribly well-versed in the history of psychology and psychiatry, so I don’t fully understand what the impetus was for this animosity towards the study and treatment of mental health, but I find it interesting.
I am, also, always struck by how the future is depicted. We can only project forward from our own time periods, so the concerns and problems of each generation gets pushed forward and expounded upon. Fear of overpopulation, food shortages, and crime were all major issues during the writing of these two novels, and all feature prominently in these books. I’m reminded of movies of the 1970s and 80s (Escape from New York, for instance) that seem almost comical by today’s standards. I often think that the past isn’t as nice as we frequently assume it was, but I think it’s also true that the future is seldom as terrible as we fear it will be. This is something I’m trying to remind myself as we wind down towards election day.