In any list of the all-time best science fiction novels, you’re certain to come across the name Robert A. Heinlein—and his 1959 novel, Starship Troopers, is one of the titles most likely to be cited. You may also find the list includes Stranger in a Strange Land, which is a very different sort of story. But Heinlein’s tale of humanity’s interstellar war against the “Bugs” is far more typical of the author’s work. And it more clearly reflects his outspoken reactionary politics. The book appears to have been written simply to make a political statement, because what at first appear to be digressions into political speechmaking are obviously a feature of the novel, not a bug.
A novel that’s a platform for reactionary politics
Heinlein betrays his fundamental belief about human nature when his protagonist’s hero, a high school teacher, insists “man has no moral instinct” (author’s italics). Throughout the book, Juan (Johnnie) Rico reflects on his teacher’s “wisdom” through frequent flashbacks to lectures, some of them pages long, on corporal punishment, the death penalty, military superiority, and the collapse of US government and society as a result of rampant crime. And in the “ideal” society Heinlein posits in Starship Troopers only military veterans are citizens and able to vote.
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (1959) 290 pages @@@ (3 out of 5)
Winner of the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Starship Troopers is far more notable for its political content than its plot. The story revolves around Johnnie from the time he was a high school student until he became a high-ranking officer in the Terran military. Along the way, Johnnie’s fellow soldiers nearly all are maimed or die, and he rises through the ranks to replace them. It’s a grim tale, and not a lot of fun to read.
About the author
Robert Heinlein won four Hugo Awards and was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA); in fact he was the first to be named, in 1975. Starship Troopers was one of his most popular novels. A civil engineer by training, he wrote hard science fiction almost exclusively. And it’s clear he was deeply influenced by his early involvement in the US military. He was a 1929 graduate of the US Naval Academy but was discharged from the Navy just five years later as a lieutenant because he had contracted tuberculosis. It may also be worth noting that his brother was an active duty veteran of the US Army and Air Force and attained the rank of major general in the Missouri National Guard.
Although early in life Heinlein was a liberal, by 1964 he was working to elect Barry Goldwater as President. He considered himself a libertarian, but that’s not evident in Starship Troopers. The book reflects reactionary politics, pure and simple.
For further reading
For a much better hard science fiction novel with a military theme, see Joe Haldeman’s classic The Forever War. I reviewed it at This classic science fiction war novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
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