“In the Mobile Infantry, everybody drops and everybody fights—chaplain and cook and the Old Man’s writer.”
It is hard for me to write about Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers without thinking about Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film version. This is despite the fact I’ve only just read the book recently and it has been a while since I last saw the film. The film is still vividly etched in my mind and is one of my favourites. That is partly why I decided I should have a look at the source material and read the book.
It turns out that the book is quite different from the film. The film takes characters, concepts and locations but alters the plot significantly and completely changes the structure. Still at the very core I think the overall message is the same. What you make of that message I’ll leave up to you. A quick look on the Internet reveals both praise and criticism for the book. The majority of that disagreement seems to be around whether you think the story glorifies war or if you think it is pro-fascism. Personally I don’t see it like that at all. I see it more as an interesting look in to a possible future which should make the reader think about their own stance on war and the military. I didn’t find it particularly for or against anything but it did make me wonder.
What is strange about this book and probably the reason the film is so different is that for a military science fiction story there is not actually a lot of action. As we follow the main character Juan Rico through his military career much of the story is told through flashbacks to his "History and Moral Philosophy" class at school or to similar classes during his officer training. That means at a rough guess I’d say maybe 70% of the story takes place in a classroom discussion, 20% is spent on his cadet training at Boot Camp Arthur Currie. This leaves only 10% for actual combat against The Bugs. That is what makes it so different from the film adaptation as that focuses on the combat.
There are three major combat sections and they are all very different. They are all well realised and both tactics and technology make sense within the setting. The cadet training sections serve as a bridge between the two extremes of combat and philosophy but even here there is more focus on rules and discipline that there is on learning to shoot.
I enjoyed reading it and I’m glad that I took the time to do so but I wonder what I’d have thought if I hadn’t seen the film. Without the background of the film in mind I can imagine this story getting a little dull at times. Many aspects of characters and technology are glossed over and defined by their point of view or meaning rather than physical attributes. My knowledge of the film fills in the gaps and so without that it becomes solely about the message.
If you are interested in the roots of the film or if military philosophy is your thing then I would recommend this, otherwise you can probably give it a miss. It is quite short though so it wouldn’t take much of your time.