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The Hugo Awards, 6: 1960, Starship Troopers

Posted 06-15-2009 at 09:03 AM by chexmix
Updated 06-17-2009 at 01:17 PM by chexmix

... and so we come to Heinlein again (and not for the last time, either), and a book that has come to be known as "controversial," Starship Troopers.

Given what I'd read about this novel, and my mixed feelings about some of Heinlein's work (and especially the really doctrinaire stuff), I expected to be utterly revolted by Starship Troopers. And it didn't happen.

There is actually plenty to like about this book: the narrator, Johnny Rico, is a likable enough lug who just happens to be Filipino (you find out late in the novel that his first language is Tagalog). There is no trumpeting of this fact - it's just there, and that is pretty swell for 1960. The battle sequences are well drawn, of course, and the boot camp part of the book -- while honestly speaking also the least science fictional -- rings true, lives and breathes. The prose is solid, no-attention-drawn-to-itself Heinlein prose.

As for the social stuff ... well, here is where the novel becomes problematic. Heinlein is on solid ground as long as he does what he became famous for in sf's "Golden Age": thrust you sans explanation into an unfamiliar world and let you live there until you discover its rules. As long as the world and its residents are well drawn, it almost doesn't matter whether it is a place I would choose to live: and I've spent countless pages and hours in imaginary places far less pleasant than the future world of Starship Troopers.

The trouble comes when Heinlein stages long classroom scenes to both explain how this world came to be and to trumpet how it is the best possible solution ... because in such scenes (there are two of them, and they seem to go on forever) Heinlein is resorting to exactly that sort of thing he often demonstrates he doesn't need to do, e.g. bald, lengthy exposition. He's doing the stuff we rely on Heinlein to not do. And, yes, this is extremely obnoxious, and not only because it's the typical "brawny men of decision and their brawny, but sexy and ever cheerily willing to be impregnated women rule" sort of Heinlein future society.

So when the novel revolts, it doesn't necessarily revolt because of its ideas, but because Heinlein has refused to let the ideas stand on their own merits. These are the places where the novel ceases to be a novel, and becomes a tract.

Otherwise, it's all fairly exciting, what with its boisterous military types protecting the human race from obnoxious "Bugs." And a future world that is far different from ours. I mean, isn't that what a type of science fiction is all about?

I unexpectedly felt that Starship Troopers was a pretty good book that could have been a much better one had Heinlein stuck to what he does so well: fiction. But the temptation to stray from that seems to have become more and more pronounced as he got older.
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