It’s probably been ten years since I watched the Starship Troopers movie, so I don’t remember much beyond the fun bug shootin’ and coed showers, but I recall it being a fairly straightforward action flick. Having not read anything by Robert A. Heinlein, I was expected much of the same in the book, but it’s really not that action-focused at all.
The story begins with Juan “Johnny” Rico graduating high school and deciding to enlist in the Federal Service, and we follow him as he advances through the ranks. This takes place on earth in the distant future, a time when you can only become a citizen by spending two years in the Service. It’s completely voluntary to enlist, and you can leave at any time (even just before entering combat), but you only have the right to vote if you last your two years. The idea behind this, at least from one of his professors’ point of view, is that everyone with the right to vote will be people who have the innate instinct to put the needs of the whole society above their individual needs, which would lead to less selfish voting that would be better for everyone. It’s a nice thought, I suppose, in an ideal world (which is not a world we live in).
The story actually begins with a flashforward to Rico dropping into combat as part of the mobile infantry, in one of the few short combat moments of the book. They get launched onto the planet from orbit in individual capsules while wearing some badass power armour. This is the earliest instance of power armour that I’ve come across, so we may have Heinlein to thank for Iron Man and Halo. He explains that the inside of the suit is lined with sensors that register your muscle movements inside and translates those to instructions for how to move the suit, so anyone who puts one on can control it right away without really needing training, at least for basic movement. He really put some thought into the technology that he describes, and it’s a fun part of the novel.
Most of the book is about his training and schooling. It’s a very political novel, and a lot of this comes from flashbacks to Rico’s History & Moral Philosophy class in high school. An entire chapter is dedicated to a discussion of the morality behind punishment, and it got really quite preachy at that point. The instructor explained that way back in the 20th century, society on earth essentially fell apart because we stopped spanking our children. Roaming packs of feral children ruined the nation because corporal punishment was banned in schools and discouraged in homes.
I don’t agree with spanking children, but it wasn’t so much the message that annoyed me as it was the delivery. I like an author to express his views through his writing, even if those views differ from my own, but this was long-winded preaching on a level I haven’t really seen before in fiction. The instructor would go on for pages, while every now and then a student would pop up and say something like “but teacher, how could they possibly think such a thing?”, and the instructor would respond that people back then were irresponsible idiots who didn’t know better. I’m not saying we aren’t, but at least attempt to bring up opposite arguments in order to dispute them. In this future, they’ve apparently mathematically proven their morals, so the History & Moral Philosophy class is about examining why their beliefs are correct, rather than questioning them, which just seems a little too easy.
Despite the preaching, I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s slowly paced but interesting all the way through, and it probably inspired decades worth of science fiction.