Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein, (Ace 1987, original published in serial form in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1959 {Blackstone Audio, 2006, Narrator: Lloyd James)

(Science Fiction, Military Science Fiction, Political commentary)

Grade: Β — (Beta) Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. 

In brief:

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein is the classic of the Military Science Fiction genre; the book that set the mile stone that all other MilFic tries to meet. Great descriptions of technology and tense, action filled combat dominate the book, though this is admittedly slowed down by a series of political thought experiment info-dumps that is frequently mistaken for commentary on how the world ought to be run.  While there are many who will dislike this novel, I classified it as a Beta because it really did give form to the MilFic subgenre, and as such is a classic that one should read if one is going to understand it.  As for myself: I loved it as a kid and still do as an adult.  It is a good fun bug hunt that imagines life as a future soldier, with some cool and some objectionable ideas thrown in.


Far future Space (and Earth), with Faster-Than-Light (FTL) travel, many alien species, and a single human government that is run as a franchised democracy where one must earn the right to vote through a two year service to the government (in theory), normally but not always, military in nature.  This service is totally voluntary, but if one does not join up, one cannot vote.

In Depth:

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein is the Father of Military Science Fiction Novels.  Oh, there are other novels that included MilFic aspects that predate this, but they were not really MilFic, as it were.  Indeed, I would say the earlier books (including such notables as H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds and Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are to Military Science Fiction as early hominids are to modern humans: superbly adapted, but not the same species.

Starship Troopers created the archetype that serves as the template for much of Military Science Fiction: the Future Soldier Story.  The plot of the book is quite straightforward, following the military career of one soldier (Juan “Johnny” Rico) from Boot Camp, to action, and so up the chain of command.  Indeed, it follows a pattern that is so common in military books and movies[1] that it is almost clichéd.[2] Yet somehow, despite the fact we have seen it in a hundred times over since the book was written, Heinlein’s tale remains fresh and different.

Indeed, the whole story remains to the point and crisp, despite the many books inspired by it written in the sixty years since it was published.  In part I feel that is because of the way authority is represented in the book.  Most of the time, the book shows the problems of command and authority with the clarity of someone who has been in that position.  It illustrates the complexity and anxiety that comes with being in charge.  It beautifully portrays the difficulties of being aloof yet accessible, of being inspiring without overly fraternizing, of leading by example without getting in your subordinate way, and it does so while simultaneously providing a cynical subtext that is often over looked.

For as a book, the novel does not only describe the gung-ho soldier as he travels through his career, it has a very subtle self-critique of the system in which the protagonist lives.  Indeed, I feel that many who read the book miss out on this, for much of the book is dedicated to describing a political thought experiment.  That experiment is a system of enfranchised democracy where all members of society have protected civil rights, but only those who sign up for Federal Service (read military) get to vote; a society where service is 100% voluntary, but civil rights (other than voting, and protection from harsh and unusual punishment) are guaranteed.[3]

Some of the ideas seem to make sense,[4] and yet many are, shall we say, a tad draconian.  Not only does capital punishment exist, but corporal punishment in school through paddling is encouraged and a large range of adult crimes can be punished through public whippings as a matter of course.  All of these ideas are put forward so matter-of-factly, so cut and dry with a supposed mathematical science behind them, that many readers seem to miss the point.  The narrator is a true believer in the cause, and the ideas espoused are always presented by someone who whole heartedly bought into the system.  I don’t think, however, that Heinlein believed in this system. If you ask me, this book is as much a cautionary tale as it is a platform for totalitarian franchised democracy.

Beyond that, there are a number of remarkably progressive[5] elements to the tale. Though normally presented as an “All-American” style of book, the hero is Filipino[6] and many, if not most characters are multinational in origin.  Oh sure, they all talk like Americans from the 1950’s, but what do you expect from a “Juvenile” (a.k.a. what is now called YA) from that period?  Additionally, Johnny likes to wear jewelry. It is explicitly spelled out in the book that he likes his ‘bling.’[7]  In 1959, a man wearing earrings was quite a radical concept, but here it is shown as a markedly manly thing to do.

Then there is the treatment of women.  While this book does have its elements of ogling and worship of the females of our species, it still notes that women serve in combat roles in the military, which was a truly revolutionary idea in 1959 America.  Oh, I don’t believe there are any in the Mobile Infantry (MI), but they are considered the best the pilots of the Space Navy and shown a remarkable degree of respect in the book. Particularly for Heinlein, whose female characters are usually little more than sex objects (don’t get me started on Stranger in a Strange Land).  In this book, however, the women were treated with enough respect that I could use my own imagination to assume (read self-edit the text) that when the narrator, good ol’ Johnny, goes off on a bit of a “whoo-hoo… hubba-hubba” style discussion he had just been in the company of fellow soldiers just a tad too long.  Having spent a tad too long in the field myself sometimes (albeit with mixed sex crews), I know my own somewhat PC views, and indeed all elements of common decency, could take a backseat to post-field meltdown.[8]

Then, there are both the overt and covert commentaries on communism.  In one sense, the whole book is a commentary on communism, for the villains of this tale are the bugs, a technologically advanced society of communal workers and warrior ruled by a brain and queen cast: a race with no sense of individuality.  Pit this against the franchised democracy of the Federation, and well, you can see the subtlety isn’t all that subtle.  Especially as that there are long portions of the text where instructors rail against communism.[9] Yet, I will put forward, that this is also in a sense where the subtle critique of our own system lies, and perhaps, just perhaps, Heinlein was giving a cautionary note about the dangers of the proclivity for Free-Market Western Capitalist systems to be dominated by propaganda as well.[10]

Nevertheless, that commentary leads does slow down the story. There is great action at the opening of the book when we see a Cap Trooper drop in all its glory.  There is also great action at the end, when we go into the bug tunnels and see some up-close-and-personal fighting.  The middle of the tale, however, is a long discussion of military training, peppered with dubious philosophy, followed by more military training peppered with elaboration on said dubious philosophy.  While I did in fact enjoy this, even as a teen, it does break of the telling of the tale a bit.  Fortunately the fairly short nature of the book doesn’t make this the painful narration it could have been.  Still it could turn some readers off, particularly if one does not take the ideas presented with a grain of salt.[11]

Poster of the Movie based on the book. Though the film was clearly intended as a farce, and tragically had no Marauder Combat suits (or any other powered armour), it did catch much of the feel of the book.

However, even with such long diatribes of dubious concepts of government, the action and irony with which they are presented make this a fun and fast read.  The action and technology are great, and if I am reading it properly, the commentary makes for an interesting thought experiment in government that is laced with subtle irony and sociological critiques.

End result? This is a must read for any fan of Military Science Fiction, and indeed probably so for any fan of Science Fiction as a whole.  Beyond that, I would say this is a good, fun, fast and action packed read for anyone who doesn’t dislike the genre.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

This book was well narrated by the talented Lloyd James, whose young yet experienced voice worked very well for the first person narration of the principal character.  Even so, one cannot help but wonder if anyone will ever produce a Filipino version of the Johnny Rico. Here, as in the movie that was very loosely based on this book, James uses an All-American accent that works pretty well with the implied gung-ho naïveté of the novel, but is pretty clearly not from the Philippians.  Regardless, the book does imply that English is the universal world language and considering the nature of the culture being depicted, the All-American narrator/actor is certainly not out of bounds.

As for the recording itself, I was surprised at the poor editing from Blackstone Audio.  Admittedly, I listened to a copy that had been recorded from CDs which never helps, but it contained several outtakes that were extremely roughly spliced together.  Sound quality and voice tenure clearly did not match, though I did not find that too distracting in the end.  Even so, an enjoyable listen.

[1] and not necessarily Science Fiction stories.  Think of Full Metal Jacket, The Green Berets, Wild Geese, G.I. Jane, and Stripes to name a few.

[2] That is: introduction to soldier (usually through showing his/her joining up), soldier gets trained (either at Basic or “commando” school), brief bit showing life as soldier, big-ass combat scene.  Admittedly, Starship Troopers mixes this up a bit by beginning the story with a big ass combat that starts with an orbital drop.  This not only draws the reader right into tale, it is also arguably the best scene of space-born paratrooper action that has ever been shown.

[3] And do not forget that when this book was written, the majority of the US Military was conscripted.  What is more, while the idea that not being able to vote unless one serves in the military may seem a bit barbaric to many, there are a number of countries such as France and Switzerland where military service mandatory.  At least in Heinlein, the service was optional.

[4] Indeed, some of them do make sense.

[5] Well, for 1959.

[6] Yes… Juan Rico is Filipino, not American and not Hispanic.  It’s pointed out at the end of the book that he speaks Tagalog.

[7] NO, it’s not called bling in the book.

[8] Indeed, a long time friend and dig partner of mine (female, as it so happens), once confided that her housemates would lock her away in social quarantine whenever she would come back from a week or more in the field.

[9] Not Johnny though.  Johnny doesn’t demonstrate a single original idea in the whole book.  Commentary on its own perhaps?

[10] Or, then again, perhaps I’m giving him too much credit and reading too much into it because it’s a good fun bug hunt with coolass personal armor.

[11] Note, one of the reasons his ideas all seem to make sense is that there are no objections put forward to them in the book. Thus when he gives the account of a man sentenced to death for a particularly horrible crime, it is never suggested that the system that performs capital punishment could ever be wrong in its convictions.  To that end, it is somewhat amusing that Johnny who fights the living embodiment of conformist communism (bugs), doesn’t seem to have any original thoughts and puts his own life unquestioningly on the line throughout the whole book.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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6 Responses to Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein, (Ace 1987, original published in serial form in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1959 {Blackstone Audio, 2006, Narrator: Lloyd James)

  1. tomspeelman says:

    The only Robert Heinlein story I’ve ever encountered was “–All You Zombies–“, which ran as the 200th episode of the podcast Escape Pod. A neat little twister of a story involving some complicated time travel paradoxes. Quite a bit of fun though. I enjoyed this review very much; I want to explore more MilFic, so this is on my list.

  2. Pingback: The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3: The Myth of the Gung Ho Space Marine… | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  3. Norman says:

    I think Juan Rico was from Buenos Aires and therefore more likely Argentine then Filipino. Although the big (and potentially radical) notion of the book was that this geographic background didn’t really matter. Rico was from Earth. That was the only ethnicity that character would identify with.
    And, given the homogenized future that is depicted, what would be the point of having someone from an Argentine (Filipino ?) background narrate the audio version? Didn’t everyone in that future pretty much sound the same? Of course, we don’t know what that everyone would actually sound like. But, using a middle-American accent in the audio version is at least true to the dialog as written.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Funny enough, his Filipino background is revealed at the end of the book, where it comes out that he speaks tagalog, but then notes that while everyone kept their native tongue, everyone also knows the standard language, which I believe they noted as English. Yet, as you suggest, the real key of the book, pointed out in the same place, is that the world is international now. Indeed, in Space Cadet, Heinlein does a similar reveal, where you don’t realize until the end of the story that everyone is of mixed race and ethnic background. Very radical for its day.

  4. Pingback: The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Vol. 1, David Drake (Baen Books, 2009) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

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