Wednesday 26 May 2010

What Do You Mean You've Never Read...Starship Troopers

If you’ve ever enjoyed any piece of what is commonly referred to as “military science-fiction”, be it Hammer’s Slammers, Ender’s Game, John Ringo and David Weber – or even more “mainstream” examples, such as the Star Wars: The Clone Wars series of novels, Black Library’s Warhammer 40,000 output or James Cameron’s movie Aliens – then you have one novel to thank, and that’s Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. As usual, someone will argue that it didn’t “start” the genre, but its influence is undeniable.

Heinlein’s desire to write Starship Troopers was sparked by the publication of a newspaper advertisement placed by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in 1958, which called for a suspension of nuclear weapon testing by the U.S. In response, Heinlein and his wife created the "Patrick Henry League" in an attempt to garner support for the U.S. nuclear testing program. During the campaign, Heinlein found himself under attack both from within and outside the science fiction community for his views. Heinlein ceased work on the novel that would become later Stranger in a Strange Land (another one that you should have read, kids) and wrote Starship Troopers - in an attempt to attempt to both clarify and defend his military and political views.

And he did that as only the best of us can - with monsters and guns.

Starship Troopers takes place in the midst of an interstellar war between the Terran Federation of Earth and the Arachnids (or "Bugs") of Klendathu. Narrated as a series of flashbacks by Juan Rico, the novel opens with Rico about to set out on a raid against the planet of the "Skinnies" - allies of the Arachnids. Rico is a Cap’ Trooper in the Terran Federation's Mobile Infantry.

Mobile Infantry troops are attached to spacecraft, which then deliver Cap’ Troopers to planetary target zones, by dropping them onto the planet surface from orbit via individual re-entry “capsules” (hence "cap’ troopers"). The Mobile Infantry specialise in a variety of tasks including smash-and-burn raids, surgical strikes, conventional infantry warfare, and holding beachheads.

Starship Troopers was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1959 as a serial titled Starship Soldier. Although originally written as a children's novel, it was Heinlein ramped up the violence and sold it to people who would understand. Children wouldn’t have gotten it anyway. Children are stupid.

It is possible to read all manner of social, political, racial and philosophical meanings into a novel like Starship Troopers. Its stance is deliberately confrontational, frequently breaking into out-and-out lectures (literally – several of the flashbacks are of lectures and classes), but it also manages to maintain an air of excellent, sci-fi space-opera guns, monsters and explosions awesomeness.

Setting the tone for the bulk of military fiction to follow, the weapons, tactics, training, and many other aspects of the Mobile Infantry are carefully detailed: from the function of the armored suits themselves, through multiple variants of powered armor, to the training of personnel is presented in great detail, which adds greatly to the sense of immersion in the fictional universe.

Starship Troopers popularised a number of military concepts and innovations, some of which have had a direct influence not only upon other works of science-fiction, but also on real life military research. The most notable of these being the powered armor exoskeletons used by the Mobile Infantry. Controlled by the wearer's own movements, the Powered Armor augments a soldier's strength, speed, provides rocket boosts and comes with a HUD featuring night vision, radar, and sophisticated communications equipment. Sure, this is something that we’ve seen in movies and video games the world over, right? But how is this impacting the real world?

Put simply, the United States military has attempted to develop technology that would give the abilities of the MI's powered armor to its soldiers. Many of the aspects of Powered Armor such as night vision, infrared, and GPS are now standard issue military equipment. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense has also spent some $50 million in an attempt to develop a powered exoskeleton in its Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation program. There’s yet to be anything seen on the battlefield from this program, but it’s being worked on somewhere.

Starship Troopers has influenced not only most science fiction – but all of the military science fiction sub-genre – and spawned movies and a TV show, as well as video games and unplugged games of all varieties.

What’s more, it’s not even going to take up all that much of your time to check it out. It’s barely 85,000 words long. Also (according to Amazon) it averages 1.5 syllables per word and, according to both the Fog and Flesch Indexes, it’s easier to read that at least 80% of the books in the world. I can only assume this means that reading this book is actually easier than watching the film adaptation.


  1. A very well researched article on a book by one of my favourite authors. I'd be very interested to see the source of 'Heinlein ramped up the violence' before re-marketing it as an adult novel. My understanding was that it was re-marketed as an adult novel by the publishers without any actual changes being made to the text... but I could be wrong. There has always been a very fine (and some have suggested 'non-existant') line between Heinlein's work for younger and older readers. I certainly find I can enjoy both equally well.

  2. That may have been a misreading on my part. I can't immediately find anything that directly supports either my interpretation or yours. I'll investigate further and amend the article if necessary.


  3. No worries, mate. I wasn't trying to poke holes; rather, I was interested to see a piece of information about the book that I was previously unaware of.