Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

5,000 years in the future, mankind is threatened with extermination…

This is the story of Starship Trooper Johnny Rico, from his idealistic enlistment in the infantry of the future, through his rigorous training to the command of his own platoon.

His destiny is a galactic war of unlimited violence and destruction.

Rico and his fellow troopers scour the metal-strewn emptiness of space to hunt down a terrifying enemy – an insect life form which threatens the very future of mankind.

Review

Starship Troopers is nothing like the 2007 movie by the same name. In fact, the two share so little in common that the movie barely warrants the name at all. Starship Troopers the movie is about guns, aliens and gratuitous nudity shots. Starship Troopers the book is about ethics, morality, and the reasons why people fight.

Don’t let the synopsis fool you. Starship Troopers is science fiction in the classic sense. Heinlein takes an improbable premise and through that lens, he examines humanity.

The premise is this: current Western society collapses through participating in a massive war against Asia. From there, people band together and it is the veterans that people look to for guidance and protection. Through this, a new government is formed. Anyone may live within the new society, but to be a citizen – to have voting privileges or to be able to run for election – a person must first go through Federal service. Most commonly, this means a two year stint in the armed services.

Johnny Rico is not particularly idealistic or even patriotic. He’s not sure why he signs up for Federal service. It may be to impress his sometimes girlfriend Carmencita, or to compete with his life-long friend Carl. He doesn’t wind up doing anything glamorous like piloting a ship. He ends up being a mud foot, a ground pounder, a hairy ape: a proud member of the Mobile Infantry.

Rico’s journey cuts between short bursts of action and longer sections of flash backs to portions of Rico’s education in which issues of the morality, ethics and psychology of both our society and theirs are discussed through the eyes of the futuristic society.

Heinlein’s writing style is engaging, and the many characters are artfully and believably brought to life. There are no thoughtless military automatons, as could very well be expected from a book with a setting such as this. Each character – and especially Rico – is a well-rounded, interestingly motivated individual who has their own desires and goals.

Similarly, the plot itself is interesting and varied. The overarching, though arguably less important, plot-line of the intergalactic war intertwines and segues neatly into Rico’s memoires, lessons and conjectures. Starship Troopers is very easy reading for the most part. There is occasionally some military jargon and some acronyms are used, though the vast majority of them are explained and clarified.

Some of the portions in which the moral code of the future society is explained may come across to some readers as somewhat preachy. While this may be literally true, it is important to note that many of the lessons being taught are by citizens of the society, and their vanity may be just as inadvisable as those of the societies which they are comparing themselves to.

The lessons and discussions with teachers themselves are what provide the most thought provocation. Many issues are covered, mainly in the realms of, as stated previously, morality and ethics. Heinlein postulates that it is possible to construct a mathematical model of morality, through which any action and its consequences can be accurately predicted, charted and quantified.

The technology that Heinlein presents in Starship Troopers still feels relevant and current, despite having been written more than fifty years ago. The suits which all Mobile Infantry soldiers wear, and are the reason for the “Mobile” in Mobile Infantry and were notable for their absence in the movie, are artfully and imaginatively realised. Not armour as such, the suits use feedback to enhance a soldier’s strength, speed and perceptions. They are equipped with a variety of weapons from flame-throwers to nuclear missiles. They also have jump jets which nearly allow troopers to fly.

Also making an appearance is the obligatory faster than light drive on the space ships which ferry the soldiers about – the “Starship” in Starship Troopers. This engine is not discussed in any detail merely to state that it does work. As the war progresses, the scientists and psychologists also come up with some novel and inventive weaponry and tactics to help turn the tide.

Starship Troopers can also be credited with inspiring a lot of more modern science fiction. For instance, the Colonial Marines in James Cameron’s Aliens are doubtless influenced in part by Johnny Rico and his gang. The famous “Is this gonna be stand up fight, sir, or another bug hunt?” is nearly a direct quote from Starship Troopers. The ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troops) in the famous Bungie series of Halo games are also a tribute to Starship Troopers. The long running Japanese series of Mobile Suit Gundam was inspired by Starship Troopers.

Starship Troopers is an excellent read. It is thought provoking, and moving. It is a tale of high-science fiction and of lowly humanity. It is classic science fiction in its own right, and as impressive and relevant a read as any of the other great science fiction classics such as War of the Worlds, Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451.

  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Demographic: Young Adult and up
  • Rating Out of Five: 5
  • Format: Paperback
  • Find At: The Book Depository
  • Published: December, 1959

16 thoughts on “Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. Hi Carpetsweeper,

    I’m glad that we could point you towards a book that you may find interesting. You certainly can find audio book versions of Starship Troopers. If you would like a physical copy, the Book Depository has a version. For a digital download, audible.com may be able to satisfy your needs. Sadly, I can’t really comment on the quality of the narrators in these versions.

    I hope this helps!

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  2. Hello Adam,
    I found your review informative and easy to read. While I am not too fussed about reading science fiction, your review and the following dialogue between you and Joachim have motivated me to seek out Starship Troopers. Can Starship Troopers be found in a “talking book” format?

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  3. Hi Joachim,

    I do agree with you that MPEAS was more prevalent than it is now. The thing is that many authors also seem to make humans rather monolithic too, when the scale gets larger than an individual. I think this trend has also been blunted recently.

    The first series that I recall that really broke down the MPEAS was the Conquerors series by Timothy Zahn, published beginning in 1994. It’s a very interesting trilogy where the first book is written from the human perspective, the second is from the alien view point, and the final is a combination of both. They are excellently written, and also well worth a read if you have not done so already.

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  4. There has been a trend to make aliens less monolithic in television — for example, the Xindi in Star Trek: Enterprise were depicted as having many different factions. The same thing with the Wraith in Stargate Atlantis, they have tons of waring factions… But, so much of the science fiction I read (50s, 60s, early 70s) adhere to MPEAS…. alas…

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  5. The Forever War is definitely Haldeman’s better novel — I don’t really remember much from Forever Peace although I read it more recently. I’ll have to read Starship Troopers again some day — I’ve been avoiding Heinlein as of late (I’ve probably read at least 25 of his novels). His later endlessly preachy works are chores to read…

    Perhaps that’s my real problem. What I call the “monolithically pure evil alien syndrome” (MPEAS). I understand that it can be used as a foil to explore man’s reactions but it’s so simplistic. But, it does work very well in Starship Troopers.

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    • Hi Joachim,

      I haven’t read too many of other Heinlein’s books and so haven’t had much experience with his preachyness.

      Your MPEAS concept neatly ties up what is wrong with a lot of science fiction. It would be great to see more science fiction where the aliens are acting in a completely erratic and unpredictable manner which turns out to be because of factionalism within their ranks.

      As for the MPEAS idea as it relates to Starship Troopers, the bugs (the primary antagonists) are a hive mind, and as such can be expected to be monolithic, or at least narrow, in their outlook. The skinnies don’t feature heavily, and do behave somewhat erratically, first siding with the bugs and then with the humans.

      Ironically, humanity itself may be the worst perpetrator of MPEAS. The military often goes in for “conditioning” new recruits to believe in the cause, however. As you say, it’s largely justified and works quite well over all.

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  6. Hi Joachim,

    Thank you for your comments. I’m glad that you enjoyed the review. I tend to read these books in the context of the society they are representing. I therefore found the arguments put forward to work with the overall theme of the book, and was not offended by them, even if I did not totally agree with them. The exploration of what a society’s political and moral system could be was interesting none the less.

    As for jingoism, I didn’t find it too aggressive, and it was justified in the context of the remainder of the book too. Their society had no choice but to continue to try and expand to counter threats such as the even more hyper-jingoistic bugs. At least there was no single country singled out as being the superior driving force behind humanity’s expansion; it was an effort of all of humanity.

    I have read The Forever War and its sequel Forever Free. They were both great, although I enjoyed The Forever War more so than its sequel. I was considering doing a review of one or both of them in the future too. Over all though, my personal preference is (slightly) in favour of Starship Troopers for the manner in which the story unfolds, and also for clearer distinction between the action and the morality discussions. Haldeman’s work is definitely very interesting and well worth a read, though.

    Adam.

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  7. Have you read Haldeman’s masterpiece The Forever War? It was written as a response to Starship Troopers I might posit that it is a superior novel. A darn good book — you should definitely give it a read.

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  8. Great review of a classic! I did have a serious problem with the political arguments put forth in the work (albeit, I read it at least 8 years ago so my critique will be too general/unsubstantiated/brief). The unrestrained jingoism really annoyed me… I can’t remember any specific examples.

    I do think it’s humorous that Heinlein initially wanted this to be one of his juvenile novels but the publishers told him it was way too serious/dark/brutal/gritty. Thus, it marked a real turning point in Heinlein’s writings from juveniles to serious works — for example, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which has to be my favorite).

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  9. Hi Diva,

    I’m glad you like the sound of this book. It is one of my very favourite. I have also read Stranger in a Strange Land. I’ll try and compare the two for you here.

    Firstly, Starship Troopers is a much shorter book. If you managed to push half way through Stranger, you would have already long finished Starship Troopers.

    Secondly, while the narrative is less linear than Stranger, this device allows for a better pacing. As stated in the review above, there is action inter-cut with exposition. The story therefore has a less linear feel to it. By that, I mean there are more emotional highs and lows.

    Finally, due to the nature of the topics and the setting, there is also far more room for action to actually occur. While Stranger in a Strange Land was about people sitting around and talking about religion for the most part, Starship Troopers actually has some combat, some conflict and drama.

    While I personally enjoyed both books, Starship Troopers is unequivocally my favourite. I would encourage you to at least try it out, read a few pages and see what you think. The writing style does not feel archaic or too verbose. It does just what it needs to do.

    Adam.

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  10. This sounds like such an excellent read, and right up my alley! I’m going to put it on my to-read list. Th only thing is, I tried one Heinlein book and only got about halfway through–and that with great arduousness, even though the premise was just as interesting as the one described above. The book I tried to read was Stranger in a Strange Land. How would you compare the two, in terms of writing style?

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