Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Paying Tribute: Starship Troopers

by Ty Franck

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while.  Write a series of book reviews of the books that had the most direct influence on my writing, and on The Expanse series in particular.  Hopefully, this is just the first.

Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein:

Starship Troopers moved onto my nightstand a couple of days ago.  I always have a nightstand book, and it tends to be something I’ve read before.  I’ll read a few pages while my wife does her pre-bed puttering, and I need something I can easily put down when the lights go out.  If it’s a new book and it has really grabbed me, it’s harder to stop reading.

So I’ve been going back through Starship Troopers a few pages at a time, and it’s been really informative re-reading this classic of military SF after having now written two novels that include elements of military SF.

Synopsis for those who haven’t read it:

Johnnie Rico is the 1950’s version of the All American Boy, living in a society that rewards federal service with full citizenship rights.  Most of the people in his society forgo federal service, with the feeling that getting the right to vote isn’t worth two years of signing yourself over to the government.

Johnnie’s parents are wealthy people who look down on federal service.  They intend to send him off to Harvard and then into the family business.  But in an attempt to impress his friend and a cute girl, Johnnie winds up signing up for federal service and being assigned to the Mobile Infantry just before a war breaks out with an insectoid race.

The book jumps back and forth between Johnnie’s memories of his training as a ‘cap trooper’, and the current events of his tour of duty during the war.  We follow Johnnie through boot camp, his time as an enlisted grunt, and then his passage into Officer Candidate School and later his time as an officer with the Mobile Infantry.  During this time, we see the entire war unfold from Johnnie’s perspective, from the first shot (an asteroid attack on his home town) to the final victory.

The book is an interesting mix of political philosophy, tech porn (powered armor!), and insider looks at life as a soldier clearly informed by the author’s own time in the Navy.


Starship Troopers influence on my vision of the future is less clear than I had originally suspected.  Yes, like everyone else in the universe, I fell in love with his descriptions of the powered armor that his mobile infantry wear.  It’s one of those ideas that is so clearly correct, that it immediately becomes part of the SF zeitgeist.  And, in fact, the military is hard at work to make his vision a reality.  Strength augmenting exoskeletons have already been developed that would allow a soldier to carry more gear into battle.  Wrap some armor around that, mount weapons on it, we’ve got Mobile Infantry suits.

But outside of the armor, not much else of Starship Troopers finds its way into The Expanse, with one notable exception I’ll talk about later.

Heinlein’s future looks like 1950’s America has taken over the world.  I always forget that Johnnie is from Argentina until I read the book again.   While I like the idea of a global society that has largely abandoned regionalism, I find myself very resistant to the implication that this global society will just look like America.

Heinlein’s vision of gender roles is also very trapped in the 1950’s.   Johnnie’s mother is the stereotypical 50’s housewife who doesn’t work outside the home, and who has to flee to her room when confronted with an emotional situation.  The only other female character of note is Carmen, the cute girl who Johnnie attempts to impress by signing up for federal service.  Here, Heinlein does make an attempt to ‘futurize’ his women by saying that they are better at acrobatics and fine motor control, and can therefore be pilots.  But, while the idea of women as combat pilots probably seemed fairly radical to a 50’s American man (not Russians though, their female pilots were the terror of the WWII skies), Heinlein can’t help but maintain this sense of gender segregation.  MEN are good at some things, WOMEN are good at totally different things.  And while it is implied that there are male combat pilots (so men are also good at the things women are good at), there is no indication that women are ever in the infantry.  Given that sheer physical strength is no longer an issue (everyone is wearing strength augmenting armor), this seems like a missed opportunity.

And finally, the politics.  Lengthy essays have been written on the vaguely fascist society of Starship Troopers, so I’m not going to get into that, except to note the one way in which it parallels something in The Expanse series.  In Starship Troopers, only people who do a tour of federal service are true citizens.  This service grants them the right to vote and hold public office.  People who choose not to do federal service have all the same basic rights as full citizens, except that they are denied access to the political process.  The Earth of The Expanse series is also a global government, under a mutated future version of the United Nations.  It too has a society stratified by a citizen’s level of engagement.  However, instead of stratification on political and governmental service, its society is stratified by a general willingness  to work.  People on our version of future Earth can choose to go on the dole, a government stipend we call Basic Support (this is covered in Caliban’s War).  Once on Basic, the government will pay for all of your basic needs: housing, food, medical care, primary education, etc.  But they don’t pay for any luxuries or for advanced education.  In order to get money to attend University, a citizen must be willing to earn ‘work credits’ by taking an actual job for two years.  The government doesn’t want to waste an expensive university education on someone who will just decide to go on the dole afterward.  So, in both stories the citizenry is largely stratified by what I call, “the engaged and the apathetic.”

Bottom Line:

I have a love/hate relationship with this book.  The political and gender views are firmly trapped in 1950’s society, and that part of it drives me nuts sometimes.  I don’t blame Heinlein for this, as he is clearly a product of  his time.  Fifty years from now all of the cultures in modern SF will probably appear just as quaint.   At the same time, the book is astonishingly readable.  Johnnie’s time in bootcamp, and then later as a cap trooper in the mobile infantry, is fascinating.  I find myself arguing with Heinlein’s political philosophy as it comes out of his character’s mouths, even as I thrill to their victories.  His vision of SF military life clearly informed my own, in both the things I stole from it and the things I rejected.  His version of a world government and a society stratified by those who want to contribute and those who don’t shows up in my work as well.

Most of all, though, I think his vision of a humanity that explores, colonizes, and then rises up to meet the challenge those things bring informed my own vision of the future.  I want to think we someday spread ourselves across the solar system/galaxy/universe, and we bring our problem solving skills with us.  I hope if we run into other intelligent life that we never go to war with it, but finding ways to co-exist will be just as challenging as fighting, and I like to think our species will be up to that challenge.

Ultimately, Starship Troopers is a hopeful view of the future, and that love of an optimistic future has stayed with me ever since.


Next Time: The Stars my Destination

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18 Responses »

  1. Thanks, Ty.

    Still need to read Leviathan Wakes, and now have some context for the background for your contribution to the novel.

    I’m curious, maybe I missed it, as to Daniel’s influences in writing LW with you.

    • There’ve been a number of interviews where we talk about the collaborative process. But I did all the world building, so I am primarily approaching these influential books on how they influenced the world building of my own work. Daniel has talked about Clarke, especially the story “Nine Billion Names of God”, and how much influence it had on his love of SF.

  2. My own feelings on Heinlein and his works seem similar to yours. I have my problems with his politics, but his books are well-crafted and very readable. Plus, he represents a huge section of my early fandom, so there’s also the nostalgia factor. But as abrasive as his politics can be to a modern reader, and as quaint as some of his then-radical views might seem, there are still little subversive nuggets sprinkled through his writing that are still surprising. For example, I think the first four or five times I read Starship Troopers, I completely missed that Johnnie is Filipino. When you find that out at the end of the book, it completely turns your mental picture of him on its head, and that’s as true today as it was in the 50’s. I love that.

    • Indeed. That is an awesome little Easter Egg. And that sort of uncommented multiculturalism is a big influence on the way people deal with each other in The Expanse series. When it came to dealing with our outer planets folks, the belters and jovians, the moon or rock you come from is much more important than your Earth ancestor’s ethnic background.

  3. This is one of those classics of sci-fi that I’ve been exposed to but never actually read. I saw the movie, but my first memory was from ‘playing’ this:

    Which was a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure book set in the universe, with combat resolved through basic dice-rolling RPG stuff. It was enough to convince me that powered armor was a badass concept.

  4. Robert Heinlein has been one of my favourite authors since I was a kid. Yes, he is definitely a product of his era, which is understandable. When I was a teen I was reading a lot of “hard” science fiction, written by people with technical or scientific backgrounds – much of it was focussed on the tech. Heinlein’s books were about people. He is one of the writers that inspired me to want to write someday myself.

    I’m looking forward to more posts in this series!

    • Yeah, I don’t hold it against Heinlein. But you can’t help but cringe a little as you read when his mother has to rush off to her room when overcome with emotion at Johnnie’s leaving.

      And not sticking any women in the MI is really a missed opportunity. He’d set up a situation in which the 50’s style male objection, “men are stronger!” wouldn’t have mattered, by sticking all the soldiers inside powered armor. I don’t blame him for missing it, but it tickles my brain as I’m reading.

  5. One item I saw missing from the discussion above was mention of the natural “counterpoint” to Starship Trooper, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. While the review is meant to be of the former, I can’t separate the two in my consciousness. The latter revisits, intentionally or no, many of the issues you raise, not only military, but societal, such as the role of women.

    I served in and worked for the US Army. The actual R&D effort in hardware is beyond the pale. Welcome to the 21st century of the 1950’s.

    I think it’s germane to note that the enemy of the novel is clearly intended to evoke the perceived hive-like mentality of Chinese Communism. Consider the United States’ experience in Korea after the “Red” Army crossed the Yalu River in 1950. That got everyone’s attention.

    Why Heinlein chose this analogy I leave to others.

    BTW, just got Leviathan Awakes in the mail an hour ago.

    • I leave out Forever War, because it is my intended third review in this series. But, yes, one could almost read it as both a love letter and a rebuttal to Starship Troopers. Joe’s experience as a soldier in Vietnam was radically different from Heinlein’s in WWII, and the stories that came out of them reflect that.

  6. Maybe someone will write an equally definitive SF work based on experience in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Some perspective on this whole giant mess is certainly in order.

  7. There’s no where to post this so i thought i’d add my Leviathan Wakes review here.

  8. So I don’t want to be a burden on this thread but I don’t know where else to post it. I speak to your new books coming out this summer in my most anticipated books of 2012 here:

    • Thank you very much, Dave. We hope you enjoy Caliban’s War. We feel like it’s a better book than the first one, but we won’t know for sure until the readers get their hands on it.

  9. Did you read the recent bio of Heinlein? It is titled “Robert A Heinlein: In Dialog With His Century” by William Patterson. I was facinated by it. Very well written, and the subject is one of my all-time favorite authors. It really brought out how much of a product of his time Heinlein was. I also kept flashing to parts of his fiction that mirrored parts of his real life. I’m really looking forward to the second book. I would highly recommend this bio, had some excellent insights on Heinlein.

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