Into the Abyss: James David Nicoll on Heinlein's "Starship Troopers": Weekend Reading
Weekend Reading: James David Nicoll: Into the Abyss: "In the spirit of Social Credit leader Camil Samson’s wonderful phrase, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the Union Nationale has brought you to the edge of the abyss. With Social Credit, you will take one step forward', follow me over the edge and into the abyss that is Heinlein’s post-Scribners work. Scribners rejected 1959’s Starship Troopers, marking the end of what had been a fruitful relationship between the touchy Heinlein and that particular publisher...
...It also foreshadowed the end of his career as an author of books deliberately aimed at young adults. Rereading it, I was reminded of something I was told in Economics 101 way back in 1980: 'don’t try to apply any of this to real life'.
The book opens as Juan Rico nerves himself to murder alien civilians, “Skinnies”, as he calls them.Heavily armed and armoured, Rico and his human confederates rampage through the Skinny city, destroying infrastructure and leaving a trail of bodies behind him (including what may be a substantial fraction of the congregation of a church). Weapons used include atomics, although how dirty they are is hard to say. What Rico is doing is no hobbyist spree kill but a sanctioned demonstration of “firepower and frightfulness,” what late Wilhelmine Germans once called “schrecklichkeit”.
The novel then steps back in time to explain how Rico went from being just another one of Heinlein’s incurious teenaged dullards to an enthusiastic war criminal. In the process, it paints an interesting picture of the world Rico lives in, as well as of the contents of Heinlein’s id.
The Terran Federation is a limited franchise democracy, one where only military1 veterans are allowed to vote.
(1: Heinlein apparently intended or at least convinced himself he intended “veterans” to include people whose public service included non-military organizations but there is no textual evidence of this. What I do see are sections like this: "A term of service isn’t a kiddie camp; it’s either real military service, rough and dangerous even in peacetime… or a most unreasonable facsimile thereof" and "'Why, the purpose is', he answered, hauling off and hitting me in the knee with a hammer (I kicked him, but not hard), 'to find out what duties you are physically able to perform. But if you came in here in a wheel chair and blind in both eyes and were silly enough to insist on enrolling, they would find something silly enough to match. Counting the fuzz on a caterpillar by touch, maybe. The only way you can fail is by having the psychiatrists decide that you are not able to understand the oath'. 'Oh. Uh … Doctor, were you already a doctor when you joined up? Or did they decide you ought to be a doctor and send you to school?' 'Me?” He seemed shocked. 'Youngster, do I look that silly? I’m a civilian employee'. 'Oh. Sorry, sir'. 'No offense. But military service is for ants'. The doctor clearly sees service as military service.)
Rico’s family is well-to-do and studiously apolitical, satisfied to be second-class citizens whose only contribution to the state is keeping its economy functioning. Rico’s decision to enlist is a whim; he has never taken much interest in the world around him and certainly has no strong political opinions. Because Rico knows so little about his world to begin with and loves repeating what he is told, Heinlein is able to drop great wodging infodumps about the history of this world into the text.
While there is an admitted level of risk in military service, most people who sign up serve a term of two years. When Rico takes his oath, he notices that’s not actually what he is pledging to the Federal Service of the Terran Federation. The actual phrasing is “a term of not less than two years and as much longer as may be required by the needs of the Service”—although that last part of the oath would only be applicable if war were declared.
Humans are not the only entities with starships in this universe and while humans and the Skinnies appear able to coexist, something—we don’t know what, because Rico has the curiosity of a turnip—goes wrong with Bug–human relations, something that becomes painfully obvious when the Bugs “smear” Buenos Aires.
(It is a good thing for us neither the Skinnies nor the Bugs happened across the Earth back when humans were running around with black powder weapons or even flint axes.)
Now Rico is in the Mobile Infantry of the Federal Service for the long haul. Because his mother was visiting Buenos Aires when it was destroyed, Rico is OK with that.
While Rico does not enjoy training or seeing his comrades killed, he discovers that he is quite suited to life as a soldier. What began as a whim turns into a career that he will stick with for the rest of his life.
I generally mark the beginning of military science fiction as a coherent sub-genre as somewhere in the 1980s or even the late 1990s. I would classify works like Drake’s Hammers Slammers stories and Haldeman’s The Forever War as “pre-MilSF”, the way 19th century scientific romances foreshadowed science fiction. Pretty much nobody agrees with me on that.
Starship Troopers is an interesting case because it contains pretty much every significant characteristic of modern MilSF, from a deep-seated hostility towards unrestricted democracy to an enthusiasm for atrocities.
As the text itself notes while trying to justify its fictional system, in the real world citizens have been denied the vote on many grounds—class, sex, age, race—and tying the franchise to military service is nothing new and not unique to the US; Canada’s 1917 War-time Elections Act disenfranchised conscientious objectors. The franchise began as the privilege of a few.
(Heinlein was generally pretty steadfastly ignorant about the world outside the US so I am always surprised to see mention of Camp Currie, named for Canadian General Sir Arthur William Currie. The Mobile Infantry basic training facility is fictional and while Currie was an important figure in Canadian history, I wouldn’t expect a foreigner to have ever heard of him.)
It has with great effort and great sacrifice been slowly extended over time; each extension was accompanied by predictions of doom and subsequent fears that this time the franchise had been extended too far. Heinlein sweeps away those decades of progress with a flourish of his pen.
Heinlein wrote this screed to limited franchises during the time that the civil rights movement was struggling to end Jim Crow. While he asserts that the Federation is above race prejudice, I wonder how the arguments in favour of limiting the franchise came across in the late 1950s, particularly since Heinlein makes a point of using phrasing that would evoke it:
The unique ‘poll tax’ that we must pay was unheard of.
The book also brings up another controversial notion; “Lebensraum.” According to Heinlein:
All wars arise from population pressure. […]
Any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand. Some human populations did so, in Terran history, and other breeds moved in and engulfed them.
This does not just apply to the human race but to all species. If the humans were to decide to become all ZPG and peaceful, they would be cutting their own throats:
Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which “ain’t a gonna study war no more” and the universe forgets us. Which still may happen. Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or they spread and wipe us out—because both races are tough and smart and want the same real estate.
Are there limits to what should be done to find space for one’s descendents? This passage:
All correct moral rules derive from the instinct to survive; moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level-as in a father who dies to save his children.
does not make me hopeful that the Federation recognizes any such limits. Neither does the fact that Rico was lobbing atomics into a Skinny city.
Rico never talks to a Bug so we never get any idea what the Bugs think is going on. Myself, I suspect that the war between human and Bug probably was fated as soon as a Skinny intermediary mentioned to a Bug brain that humans believed things like “either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or they spread and wipe us out”. Whatever the Bug proclivities, the Skinnies preferred the Bugs as allies until the humans forced them at gun point to change alleigiance to the human side. Perhaps human opinions such as “eventually all other races will have to go”” played a role in Skinny preferences.
When Rico is trying to sign up. he encounters the recruiting frighteners, whose job is to dissuade the unsuitable from signing up. I find myself wondering if the frighteners are equal-opportunity buzz-kills or if they single out certain groups for more focused attention. Women definitely get singled out for special treatment, in the sense that they are subject to service restrictions that prevent them from promotion to Sky Marshall; Sky Marshalls require a broader military background than women are allowed.
Women do get to be motivationally fridged. There are two examples in this book, Rico’s mom and a baby girl, both killed to provide motivation; Rico’s mother dies so that Rico is very invested in the outcome of the war and the baby dies to support arguments for the death penalty.
There are hints here and there that while civilians are not subject to the same military code as the soldiers, they still need to watch their step. This bit of dialogue from a doctor:
but never mind that; you might think I was talking treason, free speech or not.
seems … suggestive. As is the assertion by Dubois that humans have no natural rights at all.
Sadly, while the Federation is officially race-blind, the Chinese don’t seem to benefit from this brotherhood-of-all-mankind theme. One Federation officer is named Wu but generally, when the Chinese are mentioned, it is in comparison to the Bugs, communists whose strength is their faceless hordes. It’s true the Chinese defeated the Western democracies (or forced a stalemate—a defeat and a draw are same thing for manly men who are manly and also men) … but the West was morally rotten and falling apart at the time so maybe that should not count fully in the Chinese favor.
The novel contains an interesting discussion of Sanctuary, an evolutionarily-challenged planet. Because it lacks the radioactive elements Earth was blessed with:
With its evolutionary progress held down almost to zero by lack of radiation and a consequent most unhealthily low mutation rate, native life forms on Sanctuary just haven’t had a decent chance to evolve and aren’t fit to compete.
Yeah. Heinlein dismisses the local ecosystems with:
Its typical and most highly developed plant life is a very primitive giant fern; its top animal life is a proto-insect which hasn’t even developed colonies.
I will note that for about the first 90% of its life, Earth wouldn’t have been able to match poor pitiful Sanctuary. In science fiction. biology is the redheaded stepchild that comes to school covered in bruises, a dismissal that is endemic to the genre.
We get a hint of the angry cane-waving and the endless, endless lectures to come whenever Heinlein drops in an infodump about the effeterocracy that destroyed the West. The secret of civilization isn’t just self-sacrifice for the greater good but also beatings and lots of them.
“Mr. Dubois,” a girl blurted out, “but why? Why didn’t they spank little kids when they needed it and use a good dose of the strap on any older ones who deserved it—the sort of lesson they wouldn’t forget! I mean ones who did things really bad. Why not?”
“I don’t know,” he had answered grimly, “except that the time-tested method of instilling social virtue and respect for law in the minds of the young did not appeal to a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class who called themselves ‘social workers’ or sometimes ‘child psychologists.’ It was too simple for them, apparently, since anybody could do it, using only the patience and firmness needed in training a puppy. I have sometimes wondered if they cherished a vested interest in disorder—but that is unlikely; adults almost always act from conscious ‘highest motives’ no matter what their behavior.”
Note the “a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class.” This is another Heinlein novel where we are told that there is a science of morality (asserted, but not explained). The book also seems to argue that the rationale for the state doesn’t really matter as long as the state’s continued existence shows that the system works. IMHO, Heinlein is trying to have his cake and eat it too: weapons-grade scienceolium just off-stage and a proof in the form of a fictional society that works because its author willed it so.
It is probably just as well that Heinlein never fathered children because the more he expounds on how to raise kids, the more I am convinced that it would have been a terrible thing to be Heinlein’s kid. And given what he says about animals, probably not much better to be his dog.
But Starship Troopersisn’t all mangled biology, war crimes, and interminable hectoring. Heinlein continues a running theme in his previous juveniles by making Rico a Filipino. Possibly because he no longer was answering to Scribners, this not merely strongly suggested but pretty explicit. Ramon Magsaysay is one of Rico’s heroes and while Rico can speak Standard English, the language used around his home is Tagalog.
Featuring a Filipino as the protagonist of a MilSF novel published in the late 1950s was a bold decision. From around the time of the First World War to the early 1970s, Filipinos could join the US Navy but only as “culinary specialists”. As a former Navy officer, Heinlein would have been known that.
(There was a short stretch in 1946–1947 when the restriction was removed.)
Rico’s race did not go unnoticed by persons of colour who encountered the book. In Delany 1977’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, SRD says (p. 80 of TJHJ, Berkeley 1977):
Thus Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, by a description of a mirror reflection and the mention of an ancestor’s nationality, in the midst of a strophe on male makeup, generates the data that the first-person narrator, with whom we have been traveling now through two hundred and fifty-odd pages (of a three-hundred-and-fifty-page book) is non-caucasian.
At this time in US history, excessive integrationism was the sort of thing that earned people petrol bombs through the front door, so it’s not inconsequential that Heinlein described Rico as a Filipino.
There are two main downsides to rereading Starship Troopers. The first is that I will never get back the time I spent reading this damn book. The second, far more serious, is that now I have only the last and worst Heinlein juvenile to look forward to. Cue lamentations.