Look, I’m just going to lay all my cards on the table here so that you know where we’re going.
Starship Troopers might be the best book ever written.
Now that you know where I stand, you’re free to leave if that offended your sensibilities. No penalty, no punishment, no stigma; just click the little “x” at the top of your screen.
But, if you’re sticking around, here’s why I think that:
- Robert Heinlein breaks just about every rule of writing . . . and it works.
- He takes stances that few authors would take and no publisher would dare touch for fear of the inevitable backlash.
- It’s the book we most need today
If I were to offer you a book that was 75 or 80% about military training, and not cool, conceptual/intellectual training like Ender’s Game, but sprints, pushups, and KP as punishment for the smallest infractions, then I’d hope you’d decline the book.
But, that’s exactly what this book is.
It also features a bland, everyman main character, who is literally born into a life of luxury. But, he’s not an unhappy rich person. He’s not unfulfilled. His parents love him, and he’s reasonably successful in life.
To put it bluntly, he doesn’t need anything.
And that violates one of Kurt Vonnegut’s widely-loved rules for writing:
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
The protagonist ends up joining the military on what basically amounts to a whim. He’s not particularly smart, particularly handsome; friendly enough, but not loved. He doesn’t aspire to be anything. Late in the book, he goes to Officer Candidate School, so that the reader has the opportunity to listen to even more moral lectures. It’s the sort of stuff that you do if you’re looking to make a character basically invisible so that you can deliver moral advice. It has no right to be good.
And yet it is.
It took me more than a year to read the first 10% of Starship Troopers. I read the remaining 90% in about three days.
I read the final 56% of Starship Troopers in a single, four-hour sitting because I literally could not put it down. I tried to three times so that I could go to bed, but I wanted so desperately to know what was going to happen next that I couldn’t bring myself to stop. That’s the sign of a great book.
Speaking of the political and moral content, it is often literally given as lectures. It works because everything is taken in through the protagonist, who is sitting there listening to them. Still, these lessons are about as subtle as a Mad Max movie.
This book has been criticized for being pro-military, and the movie version of Starship Troopers, which was initially based on an original script, decided to satirize the military portions of the book.
However, I think that people who fixate on this aspect of the book are missing a lot. Sure, it’s about the military, but for Heinlein, the military is a means to an end.
Look at this quote:1
“[Universal suffrage] failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted . . . and got it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.
“Nothing of value is free.”
In Heinlein’s future world, only those who have completed voluntary military service can vote. But only a small portion of military jobs are combat jobs. The government is required to provide a service position to anyone who wants one, regardless of ability or disability. The end result is that the vast majority of “veterans” never wielded a weapon. Regardless, every job is designed, to some extent, to be both extremely unpleasant and absolutely vital.
He approaches this idea head-on later in the book:
“Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.”
This isn’t, however, an argument in favor of communism. Instead, it openly acknowledges that everything has a cost. The desire to improve the collective good doesn’t lie in a push for collectivization.
Instead, the answer that Heinlein gives seems to be reflected later in John F. Kennedy’s most famous phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Heinlein’s version might sound more like this “Ask not how you can get what you want—ask what you are willing to give up to get it.”
That’s why this book isn’t about the military, and certainly isn’t a glorification of it. The military is merely a vehicle used by the people as a way to make sacrifices. Entering the military is a risk to your life, but it’s also unpleasant, and since the pay sucks, the opportunity cost is huge.
The protagonist never fully understands why he joined, and he is always confused by the old men who have spent their entire career in the military when all of the benefits of such a career are found in civilian life.
That’s because Starship Troopers isn’t a story about benefits. It’s a story about sacrifice and about working together towards the common good even when there’s no clear personal benefit.
And that’s why I think this book is so relevant today.
Both political parties in America are guilty of trying to get what they want without giving anything up. Both sides feel the other side doing this, and it causes a breakdown of trust and of the sense of fair play. It inspires revenge.
But, what if we were able to flip this paradigm on its head? What if we were able to get people to start working together again for the common good?
What if we focused on what we were willing to give up, instead of looking only at what we think we can get for free?
- Or this graph