Citizenship at War
A review by Roberto de Sousa Causo*
Tropas Estelares (Starship Troopers), Robert A. Heinlein. São Paulo:
Edições GRD/Grupo Pecas, 1998, 275 pages. Translation by Carlos Angelo.
The release of Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven's cinematic production, prompted Brazilian SF fans to get together with Edições GRD to publish the Robert A. Heinlein novel which gave rise to the film. The union of efforts was fruitful--editor Gumercindo Rocha Dorea was the first to publish Heinlein in Brazil, and translator Carlos Angelo is the foremost Brazilian specialist on this author, considered one of the most important science fiction writers of the twentieth century.
The original publication year of the novel is 1959, when Heinlein had already had a dozen of his "juveniles" published by Scribner's. Starship Troopers, however, was rejected, which put an end to Heinlein's connection with that American publishing house. The book was published eventually by Putnam, and won the Hugo Prize for best SF novel.
It narrates the course of Johnny Rico, a youth from a well-off family, who enlists in the Mobile Infantry (a redundancy. . .) with the aim of winning the title of citizen for his family--and also to follow in the footsteps of his classmates, all of them influenced by their teacher of Moral Philosophy. Heinlein's narrative has everything one expects in a good science fiction book: adventure, an inventive and believable technology, and reflections about the workings of human society when faced with an illuminating hypothetical situation.
A good portion of Heinlein's reflections are polemical, and yield the author the none-too-praiseworthy labels of "fascist" and "militarist," because in the future he creates, people acquire the right to vote only after two years of voluntary service to the State. That service can be as much civil as military. Beneath it all, what Heinlein seems to propose is a meritocracy formed by people who, at some point in their lives, sacrificed their own interests in favor of society as a whole. As with many North American conservatives, Heinlein (who died in 1988) was disquieted by the increasingly predominant view that the individual is benefitted by the State-maintained social organization without making a major pledge to society in return. In his opinion, those who made that sacrifice would have a greater sense of responsibility in electing their governing officials and charging them with better performance from the State. Those who did not accept that order of things would not be discriminated against, exactly (Johnny's family, composed of non-citizens, was quite rich, to the point that his father considered citizenship a dispensible luxury), but rather, left outside the centers of decisionmaking.
One of the argument's weak points is that Heinlein is extrapolating, in fact, his private feelings of ties to the American Navy (of which he was a reserve officer), into a whole social order. This "esprit de corps," active even in citizens returned to civilian life, is the key to greater political responsibility. On the other hand, it is interesting how esprit de corps ties down the very course of Johnny, who, upon joining the Mobile Infantry, absorbs the doctrine and matures little by little within the ideals of that elite force. That is important because, according to Heinlein's definition, Starship Troopers is a novel that tries to explain, albeit in an incomplete way (or "partial" way, some would say), why men go to war—and he seems to declare that they go to war in part for belonging to a culture (the armed forces in which they are inserted) that accepts the terror of armed conflict and even their own deaths as a basic condition of its existence. In this sense, Heinlein's reflections proceed in the direction of the central thesis of the eminent English military historian, John Keegan, in his book A History of War. But Heinlein suggests that society as a whole stands to gain something with the diffusion of a similar sentiment, which would reach all walks of society.
In the future of Starship Troopers, Earth is at war with an alien species of insect which simply wants to sweep us out of the universe. Against it there is only one course, total war. Heinlein reflects the posture of his generation, shaken by the Second World War and by the Cold war, seeing the "enemy" as opposition to be destroyed at any cost. The relation of the novel with the historical moment of World War II is expressed in its very structure—the classic division of the World War Two novel (a popular and prestigious form, having received several Pulitizer prizes in the 1940s and –50s) between "training" and "combat." Thus, in the first part, Johnny Rico goes through the Mobile Infantry's basic training, where his individuality is leveled in accordance with the interests of the institution, in a brutalizing process that includes corporal punishment. Later, he recovers his individuality through combat—an indivisable experience because of its content of pain and fear—leaving reborn of it, understanding, finally, all that is implied by the social order into which he is introduced.
Of course, this vision of Heinlein's was vehemently contested in several ways, especially in two later novels--both also prizewinning—that "dialogue" with Starship Troopers—The Forever War (1974), by Joe Haldeman, and Ender's Game (1985), by Orson Scott Card. Haldeman is a veteran of the Viet Nam War, and in his novel he evinces a dreadful feeling of doubt as to the meaning of war. Both in his The Forever War and in Card's novel, what seemed right to Heinlein (the annihilation of the enemy), becomes questionable or condemnable, with the conflict appearing to be more the fruit of a communication deficiency rather than of social or biological determinism. Finally, in Ender's Game it is the very establishment of that communication with the enemy (in both cases insectoid aliens) that redeems the grim vision of Heinlein and the moral anguish of Haldeman, showing just how much ethical reflection about war has been altered with time.
The publication (long in coming) of Starship Troopers among us finally permits the Brazilian reader to curl up with a seminal work in science fiction, and from which few seem to emerge immune to the polemics that comprise part of it. A novel that divides its readers into those who loved it and those who hated it—surely a mark of merit for any literary work that proposes to be serious and thought-provoking.
* First published in the Brazilian newspaper O Jornal da Tarde of 02/21/1998.