Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Comment: Starship Troopers

I recently read Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein. When I closed the book, I thought, "Meh. It was okay. I probably wouldn't have read it had it not been recommended by a friend, but it was a fair to middling read for me."

Given that response, I was rather surprised to learn this morning, as I prepared to write this post, that this book (initially published in 1959) has had a significant impact on technological developments in the US military, and

is on the reading lists of the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, and the United States Navy. It is the only science fiction novel on the reading list at four of the five United States military academies.

Moreover, the book has influenced subsequent books, movies and even video games. Not bad for a tale that is, in my view, dry as a work of literature.

The things I found uninteresting about the book are a) the characters are too bland to describe, and b) the plot is dull. Call me plebeian, if you wish, but, when I read a novel, I expect to encounter characters that inspire emotional responses (they can be either negative or positive, but they should make me feel something) and a plot that drives ahead towards a resolution of some sort. I did not find either of those features in this book.

The things I found interesting about the book were the forays (and there were many of them) into political philosophy. To take one example, in the society of Starship Troopers, the right to vote is restricted to those citizens who completed at least two years of service in the military (active soldiers cannot vote). This restriction is based on the presumption that those who have so served will have been conditioned to consider the interests of society at large in making decisions that will affect the society. Is this philosophy elitist - only those who have proven themselves worthy can vote? Or is it fascist - only those who demonstrated their willingness to put the state before themselves can vote? I'm having some difficulty pinning this down, but that probably doesn't matter, as it's a view with which I disagree either way.

I haven't served in the military, but I can still see that my community's interests and my personal interests are not always at odds, nor can they always be neatly disentangled. Sometimes, in order to help myself and to reach my personal goals, I need to help my community meet its goals. If I were to vote in a purely selfish (and, ultimately, short-sighted) manner on taxes, for example, I would always vote for lower taxes, against bonds to fund schools and parks, etc., so that I could keep more of my money for myself. If I want to vote by taking a long-range view of my own interests (as well as my community's), however, I will vote to fund schools and parks (even though I will have to surrender more of my money to do so) because my community (and, ultimately, I too) will benefit by having higher quality facilities and services to offer its citizens. Moreover, there are times when I ought to be willing to sacrifice something for the good of others just because that's the right thing to do. So, even though I would not be allowed to vote in Starship Troopers Land, I'm pretty sure that I would be as capable of balancing my personal desires and my responsibilities to my community as any of the ex-soldiers in that land. Are all voters willing to find this balance? I doubt it. Still, I prefer to accept the risks involved in making the franchise more inclusive rather than accept the risks involved in restricting the franchise.

A more inclusive franchise will undoubtedly allow more voters who are selfish and uninformed have a say in communal matters, and the effects of their involvement will sometimes (perhaps often) be detrimental to both my community and me (the Bush era is all the proof I need of that). But, a more exclusive franchise based on the presumption that an elite group will act in the best interests of society at large frightens me even more (can anyone say AIG, or the Great Financial Meltdown of 2008?). A broad franchise may lead to societal ruin, but it may also contain within itself a self-correcting mechanism forced by the sheer range and multiplicity of interests that are always active in the process. In contrast, a narrow, elite franchise may lead to utopia, but, given the realities of human nature, it would just as (or more?) likely lead to oppression of the majority by an oligarchy. That's not a society in which I care to live. That old-time fascist elitism may have been good enough for Heinlein, but it's not good enough for me.

In closing, I'll note that many people revere Heinlein's works. I'll just say that, having read Starship Troopers, I'll have to agree to disagree agreeably with them about that.