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Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein (pub. 1959)
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Caution: Spoilers!

This is probably the only book I read prior to writing reviews that I could tell you what year I first read it. Not because I remember the year specifically, but because I remember the fact that I decided to read it before going to see the movie based on the book, which came out in 1997. (Of course I had to look up what year the movie came out, but that is undoubtedly the year that I read the book.) I'm writing this review in 2017, upon re-reading the book, after which I will re-watch the movie and write a review of that. Anyway, I remember quite liking (possibly loving) the book the first time I read it, though also having mixed feelings regarding some parts of it. The same can be said of my re-reading of it, even if it's not quite as I remembered it. I should also mention that there have been countless reactions and analyses of the book by many people, over the decades, often with very different ideas of what the book was actually saying about its various themes. I must say, it's all too much for me to fully grasp, but I think based purely on my own take on the story, I agreed with some of what Heinlein was saying and disagreed with some of it. It would be far harder for me to even begin to attempt to say whether I agree or disagree with all the different arguments other people have made about the book. But one thing does stick out for me: it's commonly seen as a glorification of the military, essentially an attempt to recruit people to join. And while I can see that to a very slight degree, for the most part my own take was almost completely the opposite. In fact, that's one of the "mixed feelings" I mentioned earlier. The scenes of the training in boot camp... well, this book is probably one of several things I read or watched back in the day that made me feel like if I ever joined the military, and it was anything like depicted in books like this (or any number of movies), I'd consider the treatment of recruits to be unconscionable to the point that I'd feel perfectly justified in killing my superiors. (So it's a good thing I'd never join the military, in the first place.)

Well, I haven't even gotten into the plot yet, so I suppose I should do so. It's set in the distant future. Earth has a single government, and has begun colonizing other worlds. The story is told from the first-person perspective of Juan "Johnnie" Rico. In the first chapter, he's a capsule (or "cap") trooper on a starship called the Rodger Young. His platoon leader, Lt. Rasczak (for whom the platoon, "Rasczak's Roughnecks" was named), had died on the previous mission. We learn about the powered exosuit armor that troopers wear, when dropped onto planets from orbiting ships, and about the many weapons and other capabilities of that armor. And we learn about the battle strategies of such troopers. (We'll continue to learn more about these things throughout the book.) We also learn a bit about some of the other characters in Johnnie's platoon, and while some of them will be mentioned at other points throughout the book, I never really came to think of any of them as particularly important to the story. (Though we do learn that starship pilots are pretty much always women, because they're inherently better at it than men. Conversely, soldiers in the Mobile Infantry, of which Johnnie is a member, are always men.) The battle that's fought in this chapter is against an alien race that human soldiers call "Skinnies." It's a fairly interesting battle, and not a bad way to hook the reader for all that's going to come in the following chapters, I guess.

Chapter two flashes back to when Johnnie was a senior in high school, nearing his 18th birthday. It's here that we begin to learn about the nature of the society in which he lives. When anyone turns 18, he or she can enlist in the Federal Service, and serve a term of two years. After completing their term, they gain "franchise," which basically means they're a full citizen with the right to vote. It's unclear how much of the Federal Service is actually military in nature; there are obviously civilian jobs that qualify, and in fact military service may be a small fraction of the Federal Service... but it's the fraction that this book focuses on exclusively, and very possibly what most people in that society associate with the Service. In any event, Johnnie's father is very much against him signing up. But Johnnie's friend Carl is going to do so, and Johnnie goes along with him to the recruiting office, where they run into their friend Carmen, who intends to become a starship pilot. Johnnie, who was undecided until that moment, suddenly declared he was signing up, apparently as an impulsive attempt to impress her. (Carl, meanwhile, is applying for an R&D position, rather than a military one.) However, while applicants can list their preferences for type of service (listed from most to least interest), the service they're assigned is based on what others decide their most suited to. At any point thereafter, they're completely free to quit, either before starting their term or before finishing it. But if they do so, they'll never have the chance to sign up for Federal Service again, and will therefore never get full citizenship. Johnnie would much rather have been assigned to the Navy than the Army, and of the positions within the Army, the Mobile Infantry was at the bottom of his list of choices. But that's what he got stuck with. (He would be told that it's the best position in the Army, even if most people consider it the lowliest. And he would eventually come to agree with that assessment. Eventually.)

Chapter three begins with Johnnie's training at Camp Arthur Currie. His company commander is Sergeant Zim, who rather epitomizes my idea of Army drill sergeants (i.e., superiors I'd wind up trying to kill and probably be killed by myself, since they'd obviously be infinitely tougher and better trained than me). Pretty much everything that happens throughout the next several chapters made me feel a person would have to be literally insane to join the Army, or at least to stick it out for more than a week or two; and that anyone would have to be a literal sadist to be psychologically capable of doing the things they need to do in order to train recruits to become soldiers. (Although I will say that characters whom I might start out hating or at least disliking, can later turn out to be fairly decent sorts, after all.) But as for things that made me hate the M.I., one that particularly stands out is an incident that leads to one of the cadets facing an impromptu court-martial, being sentenced to ten lashes, and being dishonorably discharged. (And this is one of the rare cases in which someone in the Federal Service is not allowed to resign.) This punishment for his infraction seemed unconscionable enough to me, but his superiors were actually being as lenient as the regulations would allow them to be. The cadet could have been executed for what I saw as a relatively minor infraction. True, there was a list of infractions that was kind of drilled into all cadets, but apparently he hadn't paid attention to it, or given it any thought before doing what he did. Still, one thing that bothered me was that part of the reasoning behind his sentence was that the incident happened while the Terran Federation was in a "state of emergency." At this point in the narrative, no indication had been given that that was the case. (Remember, chapter one happened later than all this.) But sometime later in the story, Johnnie does say that the state of emergency had begun at some point during training, though it didn't seem anyone in the camp had taken much notice of it, because the war was so far away, on other planets, and they were all rather preoccupied with the hell they were going through right here on Earth, from people who were ostensibly on their side. (And it is important to note that in times of war or "emergency," the usual two-year term of Federal Service can be extended as long as deemed necessary; potentially indefinitely.)

In chapter nine, the cadets and instructors from Camp Currie moved to another training facility, Camp Sergeant Spooky Smith. By this point, there were a lot fewer cadets remaining than had started out at the beginning of their training. And more would be lost, here. But eventually those that remained graduate. In chapter ten, Johnnie is assigned to a company called "Willie's Wildcats," on a ship called the Valley Forge. At this point, the Federation is at war with aliens called Arachnids, or "Bugs." Several Terran ships were destroyed in a battle against the Bugs, including the Valley Forge, after which Johnnie is reassigned to the Rodger Young (the ship he was on in chapter one). And we learn what life is like aboard ship during the intervals between battles. (After all, it takes time to travel between star systems, even with FTL drive.) And... I'm leaving a ton of stuff out, but I should say eventually the Skinnies switch sides and ally themselves with the Terran Federation against the Bugs. Though we never really see them take part in any battles (aside from chapter one), they do pass on knowledge about the Bugs to our side (albeit after having previously provided the Bugs with info about us). Also I should mention, Johnnie's roommate, Ace, encourages him to buck for officer, which leads to him attending Officer Candidate School (O.C.S.), starting in chapter twelve. In chapter thirteen, he's assigned to a ship called the Tours, and given a temporary commission as a 3rd lieutenant. He's still being trained, but part of that includes seeing how he handles a position of command in actual battle. This seemed to me to be the longest chapter in the book, but I'm not going to count pages to be sure.

Before I wrap things up, I want to say the book isn't all about military training or about battles. There's a lot of philosophizing. In high school, Johnnie had to take a class called History & Moral Philosophy (H&MP), under the instruction of a professor named Jean Dubois. We'll see some of his lessons in real time, prior to Johnnie joining the M.I., as well as in later flashbacks. And he'll have to take H&MP again in O.C.S., this time under an instructor named Major Reid. I have to say, whenever I've thought about this book, over the years, I kind of remembered there being more H&MP scenes and discussions in it than there seem to be, now that I've read it again. I think the philosophy of the book (not just in classes, but also discussions with other characters in various settings) was always what I found most interesting about it... but also one of the things about which I had the most intensely mixed feelings. Like the idea that it isn't a soldier's place to worry about why they fight. The government decides that, and soldiers just accept it. That is not a philosophy I could ever accept. (I mean, I do believe there are moments in battle where it's more important to carry out orders without question, but I also believe there are times when not questioning orders is itself unforgivable.) And I disagree with the notion than human beings have no moral instinct. And with the idea that people have no natural rights of any kind. (An example given is that a man who is drowning has no "right" to live, that the ocean has no obligation to him. But that just seems like such a ridiculous argument, which takes the question of a right to life completely out of the context in which it would normally be applied. Normally, I believe, it would refer to whether one human has the right to consciously choose to take the life of another. And with few exceptions, the answer would be "no." But that doesn't mean rights can't be infringed upon. They often are, whether consciously by humans or unconsciously by nature. The fact that they can be infringed upon does not, to my way of thinking, make them any less rights than they would be if it were impossible for them to be infringed upon.) There are discussions of why all previous systems of governance ultimately failed (including the democracies of the 20th century, which was of course centuries prior to this story), and why the society in this story works better than any of them. (I was particularly interested in the way democracies believed in the "divine right of the common man." I've always disbelieved in any sort of "divine right" to rule, though traditionally I've thought of it as applying to absolute monarchs or dictators, not to entire populations. And this sort of led me to wonder if my own preference for democracy is based too much on the fact that I happened to be born into one. It's much the same as how I've often questioned why Hari Seldon assumed an empire was preferable to a democracy; was it just because it was the type of society he was born into?) In any event... I can't go into all the different philosophical and moralistic discussions throughout the book. I'll just say that some of them I found totally wrong, some highly questionable, and some of them quite possibly valid, perhaps even more valid than our own contemporary ideologies. But whatever I thought of them, I found virtually all of the ideas presented in the book at least intriguing, as thought exercises if nothing else. And I do really like the idea that a way should be found to ensure that those who are allowed to vote prove that they are more interested in the good of all than in their own self-interests. Probably the method used in the society presented in this book is not the best possible way (and I certainly don't like how characters- who might as well be author avatars- frequently refer to their beliefs as an exact science which is mathematically provable, and we're just expected to take for granted that they're right about that.)

Anyway... following the battle of chapter 13, Johnnie is busted back down to cadet (though I thought he did a pretty decent job), and reassigned to the Rodger Young. Chapter 14 picks up some time later, though I have no idea how much longer. We're still at war, though Johnnie seems somewhat more optimistic about humanity's chances than he had throughout most of the book. Also, he's been promoted again. And there's a callback to... something from chapter one, the nature of which I don't want to spoil, but I do think it can't help but give one some positive feels. Other than that, I'll say this is easily the shortest chapter in the book. But one thing that surprised me was that there's a line... actually, every chapter begins with an epigraph, and the one that's at the top of chapter one, I think I've always remembered it being actually spoken at the end of the book. And it's not. (Well, maybe it's in the movie. I suppose I'll soon find out.)

So, ultimately, despite a few misgivings, I mostly thought the book was pretty good. And no matter what I or anyone else thinks of it, there's no denying what a profound impact it's had on many subsequent SF books, shows, movies, etc.


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(Image is a scan of my own copy. I think it must be the second copy I owned. It's hardcover, but I'm fairly sure when I first read the book in '97, it was a paperback, which I must have given to a friend after reading it.)