Starship Troopers: A 250-page lecture on the ethics and morals of war, violence and race

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsStarship Troopers by Robert Heinlein science fiction book reviewsStarship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

As part of my reading routine, I like to go to the way-back machine and catch up on genre classics. Within sci-fi, a few years ago I reread Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is as heavy and awesome as I’d remembered. I discovered and loved Walter M. Miller’s wonderful Canticle for Leibowitz.

Robert Heinlein, of course, is one of the heavyweights of the genre, but I’d never read anything of his and my only previous exposure to Starship Troopers (1959) was from the 1997 sci-fi film of the same title. Now keep in mind, the book has only the barest resemblance to the film, and I think the film is cool. The movie is cheesy, but in a fun blow-‘em-up action film sort of way. The book, however, is nothing like that… you know… fun.

The story follows Johnny Rico as he graduates high school and enters the military. Rico has a very small suite of skills to offer military beyond his physical strength and, as we find later in the book, leadership. So he ends up in the mobile infantry — sort of like the Marines. We follow him through basic training, a few battle interactions, and then into officer training school. Each step in his military career creates opportunity for Heinlein to introduce new characters and events that provide a platform for his discourse on the evils, morals, and theoretic benefits of war, violence, punishment and education.

Starship Troopers is like a 250-page lecture on the ethics and morals of war, violence and race. It’s beautifully written and appears to include very realistic and detailed descriptions of what life is like in the military — specifically, boot camp and officer training (I say “appears” because I’ve not been in the military to judge first-hand).

In terms of action, there’s very little of it. The opening sequence shows off the capabilities of a futuristic battle suit that allows soldiers to run and “bounce” at speeds of 40+ miles/hour. That’s cool. The last 30 pages or so are focused on a tactical battle exchange with the “bugs” that are the focus of the military’s eye and ire throughout much of the book. Both scenes are very detailed.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a classic and understandably so, but it’s a product of the era in which it was created (cold war), and reads very heavy-handedly. Perhaps I’m not as deep as I need to be, but I’d much rather read fun military sci-fi like John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR series, and pick out the deeper meaning as I go.

Starship Troopers was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction before being expanded and published in novel form in 1959. It won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1960.

~Jason Golomb


Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein science fiction book reviewsI first read Starship Troopers as an impressionable teenager. My dad had a lot of SF books around the house, particularly Robert Heinlein‘s, and I read most of them (except for the especially sexy ones that he hid from me). And I have vague memories of liking this book ― a lot.

So when I decided to reread it as an adult, I was pleasantly anticipating an old-fashioned shoot-up-the-aliens classic SF, like, say, The Puppet Masters (a guilty pleasure for me). What I got instead was a military lecture wrapped in a paper-thin science fiction plot. I was surprised by how little action there was, and how much pontificating on military strategy and training. Half of it reads like a textbook. It’s not as painfully tedious as the infamous 100-page John Galt lecture in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (what is??), but it’s pretty boring unless you’re actually interested in military theory from a proponent’s point of view.

I’m still confused as to why Teenage Me thought this was a great book…

~Tadiana Jones


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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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5 comments

  1. ST is one of the more effective military recruiting tools I’ve ever seen. While I don’t necessarily agree with Heinlein’s viewpoints, I think this is one of his better stories. Interestingly, there is actually far more action in the novel than in the original serialization.

    I reviewed it here: http://galacticjourney.org/?p=179

  2. This is one that I keep putting on my phone (audio), but never actually feel like listening to. I’m glad you reviewed it so I don’t have to.

    Welcome, Jason!!!

  3. Welcome, Jason!

    Considering Heinlein’s history with the military, I’m not surprised by how well the boot camp and training scenes are written (but then he starts lecturing, and I start rolling my eyes).

  4. Welcome and nice review, Jason! I read this one back in high school and really wasn’t that impressed. It was pretty preachy and lacked action, which is ironic considering it’s the most famous early example of ‘military SF’. As Galactic Journey said, it’s very popular among military personnel and is often given to recruits etc. I agree completely – Old Man’s War is eons more entertaining, fast-paced, and doesn’t lecture the reader. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was equally sermonizing about libertarian political ideas, but the story and world-building were better.

  5. I’ve read ST a couple of times, most recently about 5 years ago, and was surprised by how little action there was, and how much pontificating on military strategy and training. I agree with the 3 star rating.

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