Book Review: Starship Troopers

I have never seen Starship Troopers (the movie) in its entirety. I’ll catch bits and pieces of it on television if I am flipping through channels, but it is always too embarrassing to commit real time towards finishing. The movie has a cult following inside of the Army, similar to that other terribly painful movie which recently received an unnecessary remake.

With all of the recent talk concerning women in the infantry, Starship Troopers gets brought up a lot.

Women in the infantry!?

I’ve always been told that the book is much better than the movie. And I’ve read plenty about the book (On Violence spent a good deal of time talking about Starship Troopers in its “War is War” series).

Well, I finally got around to reading the book myself.

I like science fiction, but I’ve never been a science fiction reader. I’ve only read a handful of sci-fi novels, so I don’t have much to compare Starship Troopers to by way of its genre. For me, the interesting part was not the depictions of futuristic combat, but arguments embedded in the narrative for the use of force, the meaning of citizenship, and the thrill(s) of combat.

As a soldier, the book is fun to read because so much of the nuance reflects what most soldiers have already experienced, from the first meeting with the recruiter, to the myriad of exams and tests upon beginning service, to the terrible experience of initial training, to the ho-hum doldrums of life as a soldier. So much of the book is rooted in the author’s experience (a Naval Academy graduate) and although we are almost a century ahead of his time, the comparisons remain apt. It’s not a stretch then, to assume the same would be true for soldiers joining the future Mobile Infantry.

Especially fun for me was reading that in this future force, all potential officers had to first be enlisted, and then attend Officer Candidate School (the way it should be?).

In terms of message, others have described Starship Troopers as a glorification of violence and militarism, and I can see that. There is a lot missing from the book, though. The story is told from the perspective of a gung-ho recruit, so the world is colored through that lens. Like looking for answers from a 19-year-old recruit hopped up on Monster.

I was surprised to find that women were not serving in the infantry in Starship Troopers, despite the depictions in the movie. I thought that would be one of the central themes. It is the absence of women, in fact, which is an active theme in the book. The main character spends a good amount of time lamenting the absence of women around him and fantasizes about what it must be like to serve as an officer, where inter-gender interactions were more frequent.

As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend reading Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War back-to-back. I haven’t reviewed The Forever War – I read it over a year ago. It’s another sci-fi novel that follows a soldier who fights in an intergalactic war that (because of faster-than-light space travel) lasts for thousands of years. As a result, the world that he left behind when he began fighting in the world is drastically changed when he returns. The entire story is an allegory of the returning soldier. In the Forever War, unlike Starship Troopers, women do serve in the infantry. It’s an interesting look at what could be. And where Starship Troopers can be declared to be pro-war or militaristic, The Forever War could be classified as anti-war or anti-militaristic.

Starship Troopers has gone in and out of vogue on the services’ professional reading lists. A quick search brought me this blurb from the Navy’s Professional Reading page:

For today’s Sailor, this novel is extremely worthwhile, for it shows that the travails and aspirations of those who serve are universal and timeless. Its point-of-view, that of an idealistic young man learning the ropes in the military, will seem refreshingly familiar to the reader. It is easy to relate to, and root for the protagonist as he goes from being a raw, naïve recruit to a tough leader of men, along the way learning the true meaning of discipline, loyalty, and courage.

“On the bounce, soldier!”

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