Starship Troopers came to me by way of Ian Simmons of Kicking the Seat. We regularly unite on his YouTube channel and podcast for his Page2Screen series to discuss books and their adaptations, for better or worse. Latest in the long line of adaptations is Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein’s military sci-fi of yore. For a spoiler-filled discussion of the book and movie, check out Page2Screen: Starship Troopers.
Johnnie Rico enlists in the infantry of the future against his parents’ wishes, eager to make something of himself and avoid the cookie-cutter life his rich CEO father has carved out for him. Starship Troopers follows Johnnie through a brutal boot camp and into his career. He rises in the ranks and offers a first-person view of what it’s like to be a military grunt in a futuristic war against bug-like sentients that have colonized planets.
The first thing I noticed about my copy of Starship Troopers was the back-cover error, which identifies the main character as Johnny Rico, though the actual text spells it “Johnnie” throughout. It left a sour taste in my mouth that only worsened as the book went on.
Everything about Starship Troopers on a conceptual level irked me. I’m not a military nut, and I tend to tolerate military stories more than I enjoy them. I look to narratives like Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades as the gold standard: a military-influenced story that still feels personal and emotional. Starship Troopers reads more like a sadistic, masturbatory celebration of military life. Even as Johnnie Rico experiences the worst moments of his life, replete with pain and suffering, his sense of duty looms over him and he finds a way to spin-zone himself into relishing the ordeal.
I don’t care about the military in this imagined future. Johnnie Rico, with his weird plucky-but-no-nonsense demeanor doesn’t sell me on the idea. A ten-page chapter about cleaning super suits doesn’t keep me interested. Intricate descriptions of flogging are there…because reasons. Heinlein shoves ideas down the reader’s throat with no room for interpretation or perspective. Every page reads like propaganda because our protagonist finally feels like he belongs somewhere.
I can see the “That’s not the point” comments coming from a mile away, and I get it. If you love yanking it to brutish, military porn fiction, then Starship Troopers is probably titillating to you. I’m sure there are many messages and themes I glossed over. But here’s the thing: I don’t care about a book’s messages and themes if the book only exists as a vehicle to deliver them. A book is a story, and I read stories to have fun. I had 1-degree of fun if we’re going by Kelvin measurements. I give Robert Heinlein this: he has an interesting prose style emblematic of the military. It’s functional and to the point. It’s readable, and it’s not couched in any flowery language.
By far the most interesting portion of the novel is its final ~50 pages, in which Rico and his company explore a bug-riddled planet. We learn nary a thing about the Bugs, instead getting a play-by-play of a botched operation. Heinlein ignores anything that could be remotely fun or interesting in favor of boring segments that repeat ad nauseam the thoughts he’s already waxed on about for lengthy sections.
Starship Troopers is a book. It has words, and it is about a futuristic military. I hated it. Any redeeming gems were buried under boring and tedious concepts. Had I not needed to read it for a separate project, I would’ve put the book down 30 pages in.