Today begins Week 2 of our Summer of Sci-Fi Challenge, and Starship Troopers is the second book in our series of 12. Click here for the complete list of Summer of Sci-Fi books, as well as more information on the Challenge in general.
I had a bit of a time coming up with relevant tags for this book, as it is such a departure from my usual tastes. It was almost funny scrolling through the tag list and seeing all the categories that this book decidedly wouldn't fit into: Complicated Sisterhood, Feeling Big Feelings, Quirky and Adorable...Yeah. Heinlein may be one of the best-known and widest-read sci-fi authors ever, but when a girl like me who enjoys elegant prose and intricate characters sits down to read him, adjustments must be made.
Adjustment #1: The book begins in media res, meaning “in the middle of the action.” The first chapter is a high-energy, action-packed military fight scene, with more lingo and acronyms flying around than bullets. My advice for novice sci-fi readers is to just plow on ahead—don't read too slowly or you'll get bogged down. You don't have to know what a Y-rack or hand flamer is to get the gist anyway. Think of it like an action movie—in the big loud opening scene, do you always know exactly who everyone is or what they're doing? No, but you can still sit back and enjoy the gunslinging and fiery explosions.
Adjustment #2: Heinlein is really into the military. Like whoa. The only people I've ever been close to who served in the military were my grandfathers, and they were in WWII. In my limited experience, war is something that happened back then, not something immediate, and certainly not something that greatly affects me personally. (Please understand that I am not in any way diminishing the sacrifice of those in the US military, our veterans, and their families. I'm simply saying honestly that I have not been personally impacted by war, and I recognize that blessing has come on the backs of other valuable human beings.) As someone without close military ties, I wasn't quite sure what to make of Heinlein's proselytizing about militaristic values. A society in which the only people who vote are those who volunteer and serve successfully? Not sure I'm comfortable with that, dude. But I do share Heinlein's frustration at the apathy of voters today.
Adjustment #3: When he has a point to make, Heinlein stops the action and lets one of his characters (usually an instructor) pontificate for pages on end. Authors do this when they really want to expound on a philosophical point, but can't find a way to work it smoothly into the narrative. I know it's controversial, but I'm firmly of the “show, don't tell” school of writing. It drives me bonkers when authors try to pass off long-winded passages of opinion-spouting as fiction. Heinlein would have been better served to cut those sections and publish them separately as an essay or series of essays. Better yet, he could have found a way to work the principles into the storyline in a less contrived way, proving his point through the actions and reactions of his characters, which would have been more convincing and less dreary reading. An entire chapter promoting spanking and public flogging as the way to eliminate recidivism? Not only am I not convinced, I've fallen into a boredom nap.
I didn't think the book was a total bust. My favorite part was the first half, in which Johnnie joins up with the Army and goes through boot camp. Heinlein not only thoroughly describes the experiences of the recruits, but delves into the psychology of the leadership as well, demonstrating the logic behind their methods. I have to admit the efficient, brutal justice of the court martial process appeals to me—you knew the rule, you broke the rule, here is your consequence. I also appreciate how the higher-ups try to temper punishments with mercy whenever they can, while still holding to the letter of the law. I wasn't expecting that, but it helps me understand the concept of military honor.
Ultimately I'm glad I've read one of Heinlein's books, since he is such a household name when it comes to sci-fi. Will I read him again? Eh...only if we do Summer of Sci-Fi 2 someday.
As always, I'd love to hear your comments. What did you think of Starship Troopers? Let me know in the comment section here, or on Facebook or Goodreads. Your participation is what makes these Challenges fun.
The next book on our list is Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Join us next week for that discussion!