By Robert A. Heinlein
Published by Blackstone Audio
Read by Lloyd James
I just reviewed another of Robert Heinlein’s books (The Door into Summer) two weeks ago and while I suppose I should have taken a little more time before doing another, I felt like listening to Starship Troopers next.
Starship Troopers has been called one of Heinlein’s most controversial stories. I supposed I can see why that might be, but I find myself wondering whether it is controversial among liberals, conservatives or both. Frankly, I can see where what some of what he says would be unpopular with almost all modern political opinions I the United States (and probably most other democratic republics in the world – dictatorships would hate it outright, but let us leave modern politics aside. The world of Starship Troopers is not the one we live in although Heinlein shows how it could become so.
Stepping back a bit, I first want to say that if you have not read this book, but only seen the movie, then please put anything you saw in the movie out of your mind. The movie was an action-packed abbreviation of the story that entirely missed what Heinlein was trying to say. Sure humans were fighting an insectoid enemy (among others) across an interstellar stage and there was a lot of military action going on, but that was just the setting, not the story.
The story itself is told by Juan “Johnnie” Rico. In it, he recounts his classes in “History and Moral Philosophy,” an interesting mix that perhaps should be taught to all students. I’ll admit that today’s teachers would have a different slant on what moral philosophy in association with history would be, but as a tool for training young minds to think and analyze the world around them it sounds like a good idea. Admittedly, it sounds like a good idea right up until it turns out that the lessons taught would disagree with how you think of them and that’s where all the fighting and protests would come from, but in Heinlein’s world of Starship Troopers, there have been major problems and the class in his projected society is one of the cures. Do I agree it would solve the problems he suggests… no probably not, but it does cause one to at least think and whether you agree with him or not (or with me or not), if you can at least explain why you disagree with a reason that transcends arguments like “Because we have always done it this way” or it is not in the holy scripture of your choice, then I think that’s a good thing.
Johnny has learned his lessons well and is really on the fence about entering military service. The main benefit of serving is that only those who have served have the right to vote in this world of Heinlein. I think perhaps this is the greatest point of controversy, but speaking as someone who has never served in any military service, I have to admit that Heinlein is not completely wrong in asserting this notion. Restricting the right to vote to those who would truly defend their nation is not all that bad an idea and having actually served is the clearest way to prove it. Would I stop voting simply because I have never served? No, but then I do not live in the world of Starship Troopers. In this world part of my service to my country IS in voting. I take my franchise seriously and never vote for a candidate based solely on his party or whether I think he is going to win. I vote for the person I want to see in office. If none of the candidates meet my criteria, I move on to the next race and vote there instead.
In any case, Johnny accompanies a friend to the local recruitment center where the recruiting sergeant does everything he can to convince them that military service is not for them and, in general, a stupid thing to commit to. I found that quite a refreshing idea. In our world we rarely have enough serving men and women, but in a world where the right to vote is contingent on service, the problem is reversed; there are too many superfluous persons trying to get in and not enough jobs to keep them occupied.
One thing leads to another and while Johnny had no real intention of enlisting, he does in the hope of becoming a starship pilot. He doesn’t. In fact all it turns out that he is qualified to do is join the “Mobile Infantry,” an army composed of armored soldiers who seem half Army and half Marine and all very tough. They get the dirtiest jobs and are proud of it. Well Humanity is not at war at the moment and while men do die in training, it does not seem all that bad until Buenos Aires is wiped off the map and suddenly we’re at war and that means Johnny is an MI for the duration.
Training sounds like basic training in almost any age. One can imagine grizzled decurions in Caesar’s legions yelling, “Come on, you apes! You wanna live forever?” in Latin and Heinlein spends a lot of time describing the specialize training of the Mobile Infantry. It is tough and deadly and designed to winnow out most of the trainees in one way or another so that what is left at the end of training is the toughest, most durable of the lot, because they have to be.
Training, in fact, is so tough that by the time they go to war, it almost seems like an extension of basic training and then Johnny decides that since the duration is likely to be the rest of his life, he may as well be an officer and OCS turns out to be even tougher than any training so far.
The action of the story, however, is as I said, just the backdrop for Heinlein’s political essay on social responsibility and the need for individual sacrifice. Heinlein used the book to not only criticize facets of the US system of governance, but also takes aim at almost any other known or proposed system, such as Marxism and even Plato’s Republic. So in all, the arguments are probably guaranteed to upset anyone who is the least bit sensitive about anything political. So you might sit back at first and nod, thinking See he hates the same stuff I do and then in the next sentence you notice that your cherished ideals are the next target.
However, unlike the authors of most such polemics, Heinlein spins an interesting tale here too, so even when you do not agree with him (I rarely do when you get right down to it), you can still enjoy the story.
Put this on your “Must read” list.
Lloyd James Does a fine job of sounding like a young man in his late teens and early twenties. Actually he does not engage in the funny voices, accents and mannerisms that so many actors reading a book use. He is simply reading the book well. So you do have to listen closely to know who is talking, but Heinlein always makes sure you knew that. So you can relax and just enjoy… or curse at… whatever you preference is… the story.
Mister James paces himself masterfully. His pauses are excellent and he does not appear to be racing his way through the story. He takes his time and lets the story tell itself. He reads it well and lets you fill in the gaps. I enjoyed listening to him.
So, we have a mildly controversial but interest story and a pretty good reading of it. I definitely recommend it.