Genre: Military SF
Publication Date: 1959
Thousands of years in the future, humanity is at war with an arachnid foe.
The military is the last saving grace of human society, the wall that keeps out the barbarians. And of course being a soldier comes with its perks.
Johnny Rico is a young man with big dreams. Namely, to get into the military and do his bit for the war effort. unfortunately for him, things are rarely that simple.
Like so many people, I am more familiar with the film version of Starship Troopers than the original novel. Since I hold the film in such high regard, and given that this novel basically kickstarted the Military SF genre, I figured it was about time I corrected this oversight. And boy am I glad I did.
First up, this is a classic example of the book being different from the film. Not necessarily better, but very different. For a start, almost two-thirds are spent in military boot camp. It’s only in the closing acts that we get a good look at the war against the bugs. But the biggest diversion the film took is in the humour. While the novel has less of the out-and-out violent humour, the political satire is much, much thicker. We get a better look at the political workings of the Federation, in all its messy intricacies.
That’s one of the strangest parts of the novel. It’s brimming with political speeches and moral justifications. It’s insightful, provocative, hilarious, but above all, it’s very hard to tell where satire ends and personal opinion begins. And I think that may be the point. Everything here is on a sliding scale, albeit one tilted to favour the extreme. But among the obvious humour, there are some genuinely fascinating pieces of moral philosophy.
This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the book’s original release, and its age does show. Even by the standards of Military SF, Starship Troopers is rather sexist, with almost every character being a hot-blooded male. Though I do feel this is balanced with the naval side of the army being predominantly female. The hardest part for me was envisioning Dizzy Flores as a man. I’m only glad I haven’t seen the film in a while, or these problems could have been far worse.
Quite often I find that older prose is more difficult to read. A temporal language barrier between myself and the golden age of the pulps, but Heinlein’s writing is as smooth and clear as any modern author. He writes without embellishment, but with good humour. Almost like a verbal storyteller. There are times when you forget this story isn’t being told by Rico himself.
I don’t think the book is quite good enough to knock the film off the pedestal I hold it on, but that’s down to personal taste more than anything else. granted some of my favourite scenes are absent or cut down, but others are enriched and shown in more detail. My recommendation would be to view the film and novel as two separate entities, in as much as that is possible.
At the end of the day, Starship Troopers is a magnificent piece of standalone fiction, and if you like philosophy, satire, or just good old-fashioned action, you should definitely take a look.