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Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers cover
Starship Troopers cover

Starship Troopers is a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein first published in 1959. It received a Hugo Award in 1960, and remains one of the most controversial science fiction novels.

Starship Troopers was made into a strategy/simulation board game by Avalon Hill in 1976, a Japanese anime series in 1989 produced by Sunrise (of Gundam fame), a film by Paul Verhoeven in 1997 (considered by many hardcore fans as a twisted parody of the original) and an animated television program in 2000.


Plot synopsis

The novel deals with the growth of Juan Rico from the spoiled scion of a wealthy family to selfless leader of men.

After rigorous basic training, Juan Rico is assigned to a platoon of future soldiers in the Mobile Infantry defending humanity from an intelligent race of creatures collectively known as "bugs", a repulsive alien enemy sharing many characteristics with social insects such as ants or termites, and their allies, called "Skinnies" (appearing in the first chapter of the book).

The military confrontation between Earth and the "Bugs" bears some similarities to the United States' war with Japan in World War II—the Bugs start the war with a surprise attack. Over the course of the war, the Mobile Infantry are ferried by the Navy from planet to planet for short but fierce engagements. This very much resembles the progress of U.S. Marines in the island-hopping Pacific War, while their training and traditions (for example, officers jumping first) resemble the US Army Airborne divisions. To some degree, the "Bugs" seem representative of the Japanese, as depicted in U.S. war propaganda—as insectile members of a more hierarchical society who were unwilling (or as the lower caste Bugs, unable) to surrender.

Political subtext

Politics is a significant subject in the novel, taking up a greater part of the story than the scientific or technical aspects. The novel presents a very favorable view of the purposefulness and order of military life and disgust with the slack, individualistic, and purposeless life of "civilians". Many fans regard the book as one of the best literary descriptions of the positive aspects of military service (notably the strong bonds between soldiers).

In the future world of the novel, only those who have volunteered for federal service (i.e., military service) are permitted to vote and hold political office, although it is stated several times in the text that "non-citizens" are neither oppressed nor shorted on rights, aside from voting. These aspects of the novel make it highly controversial, with numerous detractors interpreting the book as thinly-disguised, expertly-written propaganda for fascism. (Heinlein later denied that military service was the only way to earn the franchise and claimed that the novel made this point explicitly, several times. However, this issue is still a matter of controversy among even the book's defenders, and some commentators have declared, based on a careful reading of the text, that Heinlein is simply wrong on this point.)

The society portrayed in Starship Troopers also considers corporal punishment acceptable in childrearing , civilian criminal matters, and enforcing military discipline. Some detractors claim that much of the government portrayed in the novel was based on Nazi Germany. In fact, the society (and army) described are multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious—the protagonist Juan Rico is Filipino (a fact which is not explicitly shown until the very end of the book), while others in his training group are American, Japanese, German, and Turkish or Arab, and one or two have recognizably Jewish last names.

Whatever may be read into Heinlein's opinions on these points, his express claim is that the novel is an exploration of the question "why men fight" and that it leaves many unanswered questions. Probably the single most important political subject explicitly explored in the novel (and defended by at least the characters doing the exploring, if not by Heinlein himself) is the idea that authority and responsibility must be equal and coordinated, the alternative being that their imbalance throws a society into disequilibrium and chaos.

Heinlein also expresses his views on Communism in the novel, written during one of the most frigid points in the Cold War. He blasts Marx's views, such as the labor theory of value, through speeches by a history teacher. (Heinlein's personal views were closest to what came to be known as Libertarianism: he loathed Communism and Fascism in equal measure, and indeed considered them two sides of the same coin.) However, he does concede that communism fails only because of flaws in human nature. The Bugs are a purely communist society, and indeed for the insectoid drones, communism is the ideal way of life. But of course, Heinlein repeatedly makes the point in the book that (in the words of one of the characters): "correct morality can only be derived from what man is—not from what do-gooders and well-meaning aunt Nellies would like him to be".

The "Nazi" Attack on Starship Troopers

So many commentators on Starship Troopers have used the Nazi analogy that one of the corollaries of Godwin's Law sarcastically states that once Heinlein is brought up during online debates, somebody will compare the book's society to Nazi Germany within a few days.

While attacks on Starship Troopers may include the word "Nazi," there is a historical justification for such a viewpoint. In the book, the historical origins of the militaristic government are given as follows:

"With national governments in collapse at the end of the XXth century, something had to fill the vacuum, and in many cases it was the returned veterans. They had lost a war, most of them had no jobs, many were sore as could be over the terms of the Treaty of New Delhi, especially the P.O.W. foul-up - and they knew how to fight. But it wasn't revolution; it was more like what happened in Russia in 1917 - the system collapsed; somebody else moved in.

"The first known case, in Aberdeen, Scotland, was typical. Some veterans got together as vigilantes to stop rioting and looting, hanged a few people (including two veterans) and decided not to let anyone but veterans on their committee. Just arbitrary at first - they trusted each other a bit, they didn't trust anyone else. What started as an emergency measure became constitutional practice in a generation or two." (Heinlein, Starship Troopers, 1959)

The situation and response described above is parallel with the development of the Freikorps in Germany after World War I, and these corps in turn contributed greatly to the rise of Adolf Hitler. The fictional "Treaty of New Delhi" can be accurately compared to the Treaty of Versailles.

However, it is likely that Heinlein was simply unaware of all the historical nuances surrounding the creation of Nazi Germany.

Military Conception: Light Infantry Landed from Orbit

For science fiction fans, the novel popularized the concept of the powered armor exoskeleton in the form of the powered armor suits of the Mobile Infantry soldiers. These suits were manipulated by the wearer's own movements but also powered to augment the actions. The soldier could, for example, jump upwards, and the powered leg joints would launch him off the ground while rockets kicked in for further propulsion. Dropped from orbit in individual egg-shaped heat shields, the troopers would parachute into enemy territory for quick hit-and-run operations. Armed with a significant arsenal including high-explosive rocket launchers and flame throwers, the Mobile Infantry soldier was a one-man tank.

In many fans' opinion, the book's major creative feat is the rigorous and coherent invention and depiction of the use of light infantry delivered to planetary surfaces for operations designed not only to serve diplomatic purposes (i.e. terror operations) but also to take and hold positions for intelligence gathering. The concept of Mobile Infantry, whose basic element is the single trooper, highly trained, encased in an armored suit, and delivered to the area of operations in a disposable re-entry pod, is unprecedented in literature, both military and otherwise.

The weapons systems, tactics, training, and all other aspects of this futuristic elite force is completely envisioned, from the function of the armored suits to the training of personnel to the operational use of the suits in combat. Tactics are described in detail, and the weapons systems are tailored to the operational imperatives laid down by the plot.

Film and animated series

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation DVD case

Paul Verhoeven's 1997 film takes up these political themes by satirizing the book's attitudes mercilessly, using references from propaganda films such as Triumph of the Will and wartime news broadcasts. Some wits, referring to these how these elements are combined with an attractive young cast, like to call the film Triumph of the Will, 90210.

However, this satire was embedded in slickly-produced action sequences with clever special effects in such a way that the satire went unnoticed by a mostly teenage male audience who treated the movie as a simple gung-ho action movie.

The movie did not perform well at the box office: despite its lavish $100-million-plus production budget, it earned only $54 million in its theatrical release, though its subsequent release on video helped to earn its costs back. Critical reaction to the film was largely negative, and the film was criticized for having characters who were as mindless and one-dimensional as the special effects were impressive and dazzling (indeed, it was nominated for a special effect Oscar).

The film was also characterized by a conspicuous absence of anything resembling Heinlein's Mechanized Infantry; troopers wore an unpowered ensemble which seemed to differ only slightly from modern-day SWAT gear. A substantial portion of the soldiers' anatomy was left unprotected, and what little armor was present seemed to be of little use. (Rumor has it that the special effects budget earmarked for the armor had to be diverted to improving the CGI aliens.)

The MI's onscreen tactics were also found questionable by many. While the majority of the bugs could only pose a threat at extremely close range (a limitation most assuredly not shared by the troopers), the movie's troopers invariably acted to close the distance between themselves and any bugs encountered. The bugs were also altered to be less an alien civilization and more "monsters". Also, the name of the bug race was given as Arachnids. Fans of the book were deeply offended by these changes; indeed, they were on the whole deeply offended by the entire movie, either not realizing Verhoeven's true intentions (to parody the society of the story) or realizing his intentions and being infuriated by them.

The animated series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers (released in 2000) was closer to the events of the book, such as including the war with the Skinnies, and included more of the characters. However, it focused mostly on combat, and didn't address the political aspects at all. Verhoeven was also a producer for the series, and it used the creature designs from the 1997 movie.

In 2004 a sequel called Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation was released—straight to DVD. It has a low budget, and appears to re-use special effects from the first movie. None of the characters from the first movie appear in the second, although actress Brenda Strong portrayed unrelated characters in each.

Prior to all of these adaptations, in 1989 there was a six-episode Japanese anime video series called Uchuu no Senshi based on the Starship Troopers novel. However, apart from the inclusion of powered armor, it bears little resemblance to the original, especially with Juan Rico being recast as a blonde in the manner of Char Aznable from Gundam.


Starship Troopers clearly influenced many later science fiction stories, setting a tone for the military in space, a type of story referred to as military science fiction.

  • A large number of works of Japanese anime, such as Mobile Suit Gundam and The Super Dimension Fortress Macross feature giant human controlled robots which are deeply influenced by the Mobile Infantry Suits. The anime, Blue Gender, could be influenced by Starship Troopers as well.
  • James Cameron's Aliens movie incorporated themes and phrases right out of the novel such as "the drop," "bug hunt," and the cargo loader exoskeleton. The actors playing the marines were required to read Starship Troopers as part of their training prior to filming.
  • Glen Morgan and James Wong 's TV series Space: Above and Beyond also appears to follow many of the same themes.
  • Peter F. Hamilton's novel Fallen Dragon continues the traditions of exoskeleton-wearing military cameraderie, but in confrontations with human rather than alien societies.
  • Orson Scott Card's award-winning novel Ender's Game further explored the theme of human battle against a centrally-controlled insect-like species.
  • David Weber and Steve White's In Death Ground and its sequel The Shiva Option describe an interstellar war between an alliance headed by humans and felinoid Orions, and an arachnid species with a caste-like structure like Heinlein's, with the additional diabolical feature that it regards other intelligent life forms as mere food sources. Interestingly enough, this universe also incorporates a number of other facets which are already reminiscent of Starship Troopers: the human government is called the Terran Federation, as it was in Heinlein's novel, and its military is headed by a Sky Marshal, as in Heinlein's novel. Also, the Marines wear powered combat armor.
  • John Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata series of books have a major focus on the use of powered battle armour in future warfare.
  • John Steakley's novel Armor was, according to the author, born out of frustration with the small amount of actual combat in Starship Troopers and because he wanted this aspect developed further. The themes are similar, it also contains exoskeletons and insect-like aliens.
  • The initial storyline of the first person shooter Quake II starts in way very similar to the movie, as large battle cruisers launch thousands of one-man soldier pods to invade a planet.
  • Sierra Games' Tribes series of PC game first-person shooters is influenced by the book, most notably in the core gameplay element of rocket-assisted powered armor that allows the combatants to bound over the terrain in giant, arcing leaps.
  • The developers of the computer game StarCraft have openly stated that one of their inspirations was (mainly Verhoeven's) Starship Troopers. The "Zergling" Zerg unit bears a close resemblance to the "Bug Warrior" of Verhoeven's movie, and Zerg Cerebrates are sort of a Brain Bug equivalent. The similarities were more pronounced in an add-on pack to Starcraft, Starcraft: Brood War (the original contained Episodes 1–3 of the story, while the add-on contained episodes 4—6). A new faction was revealed when the lost colonies of the first game re-stablished contact with Earth: the United Earth Directorate, which acted much like the United Citizen Federation in the movie version. UED officers dressed like the intelligence officers of Verhoeven's movie, and repeated semi-patriotic mantras such as "Serve the Directorate! Serve Humanity!". Most striking was a computer generated in-game movie that runs after successfully completing the UED campaign, which essentially copies the "wartime news broadcasts" seen in Verhoeven's film.
  • Fans of the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000 often acknowledge the novel as a major influence. The Space Marine army, with their powered armor and drop pods are similar to the human marines in the novel. The hierarchical, insectoid Tyranid race closely resembles the novel's "Bugs". The Tyranids, like the "Bugs", have near-mindless footsoldiers and are controlled by a mysterious hive mind. Some fans of the game claim that the Eldar were derived from the "Skinnies", but this connection is tentative considering the "Skinnies" weren't well described by Heinlein, and many of the races from Warhammer 40,000 are obvious correlations to races from Warhammer Fantasy.

On the other hand, Joe Haldeman's antiwar novel The Forever War is popularly thought to be a direct reply to Starship Troopers, though Haldeman has stated that it is rather a result of his personal experiences in the Vietnam War (1998 interview). Haldeman, a twice-wounded combat engineer, has implied that certain perspective differences could be attributed to the fact that Heinlein never served in active combat.

Harry Harrison's book Bill, the Galactic Hero is often considered a criticism of Heinlein's book, though his other parodies, like Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (1973) also lampooned the military SF typical of Starship Troopers.


See also

External links

Last updated: 08-18-2005 09:52:18