Check out my review policy for a few disclaimers before proceeding.
Content warnings: Believe it or not, but this Robert Heinlein book contains NO SEX, NO GORE, and NOT EVEN SWEARING. I guess it was the year it was published?
You know those sickly-sweet tales that tell you that everything you believe is absolutely right and therefore you are a good and wise person for believing them? Starship Troopers is kind of like that, except for the citizens of an imaginary future military republic.
Citizens, in the above, is not an idle word. In this future Earth, the voting franchise is restricted to those who have served in the military. But more on this later.
For a book called Starship Troopers, there is much trooping but very few starships. There are only two distinct scenes set on alien planets; the rest are only described in passing. Most of the book either describes training, life as a trooper, or philosophical digressions—“digressions” being a charitable name.
But again, more on that later.
The premise of the book, among many, is that in the future infantry will still be necessary to apply violence in a more confined area. In the future, this means jumping from building to building in powered armor tossing H-Bombs hither and thither. If he did not invent the concept, Heinlein certainly popularized the idea of power armor, though sadly most later appearances in SF have less herculean strength and jumping ability and causal use of nuclear weaponry.
Be not deluded: these rampages of atomic death only appear in the first chapter. This is an ideas book.
And here is the main idea:
Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the body may live.
By no means is this “conviction” anchored to anything greater than the material universe. I do not mean to say that no justification for this concept can be found outside the novel, but within it—none. Have another (mis-)quote:
Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.
The universe of Starship Troopers is sheerly Darwinian: War is due to population pressures, but any population that does not grow will be destroyed by the one that does. Therefore, war must be fought for the survival of the self, the group, the nation, and finally the species itself. This, it is declared, can be demonstrated by mathematics, and is as unquestionable and absolute as the law of gravitation.
While this view may have a logical basis of sorts, the problems with it are not explored. The main “foe” of the book, the “Bugs,” are a hivemind race and have no military republic as the humans have. If both races had this kind of republic, both following this “universal law,” what would become of either of them?
Indeed, if you disagree with any opinion in this book, and would wish for a helpful character to respectfully disagree alongside you, you will be disappointed. And opinions there are aplenty. Nearly every chapter has a discourse (usually multiple), be it on child-rearing, corporal punishment, capital punishment, schooling, the draft, boot camp, maintenance, leadership, military history, human rights, the ratio of combatants to noncombatants, the superiority of women as starship pilots, the destruction of the ancient city of Carthage, or the evolution of plants in a low-radiation environment.
The incident that topped it off for me was when the father of our hero, who is greatly against the military in the first few chapters, ends up later in the book a fellow soldier. At that point it was less SF classic and more Chicken Soup for the Theoretical Power-Armored Nuclear-Armed Future Soldier-Citizen’s Emotional-Conviction-for-Survival-of-the-Whole.
You might have noticed I have not actually mentioned our hero in any way up until this point. That is because he is mostly irrelevant to the book, serving only to illustrate the book’s philosophy in a kind of futuristic bizarro Pilgrim’s Progress with less biblical references and more people dying.
Having referenced two books, I will reference a counterexample: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is another SF classic about future war, having almost diametrically opposite opinions. Wikipedia quotes Heinlein in saying that it “may be the best future war story I’ve ever read!” Having read The Forever War I can’t recommend it full-heartedly, (and by no means is it as “family-friendly” as this, be that as it may) but they contrast each other well.
Verdict: One indistinct Pelicaniform of an unexpected kind of book.