I don’t get Robert A. Heinlein. I’ve tried to get him, but I just don’t. This does not mean that I dislike his books, it is just that his mind frame severely differs from mine and because of that I can’t find any common aspects that make his books relatable. To be honest most of the times, what I get from Heinlein is total and complete what-the-fuckness (can I swear in my own blog? I hope so) . I guess you could say that I don’t grok him. 😉
So why bother reading him? Well, there are a few good reasons. One: he has a huge reputation and is considered one of the greatest science-fiction writers in history. He is up there with Asimov and Clarke in a sci-fi Holy Trinity (which I don’t think he deserves but this is just my opinion). Two: just because I don’t get where he comes from it doesn’t mean that I don’t find it interesting. Three: he is a good writer. Four (and last): whether good or bad he is, along with Philip K. Dick, one of the few science-fiction writers that I’ve read whose personality completely imbues and even transcends his writing. Heinlein writes science-fiction novels, but he is also putting a piece of his mind in there, and like him or not that is something that is bound to create some interesting output.
Starship Troopers is the third book of his that I’ve read. The other two are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land which, according to my understanding, means that with this last one I’ve tackled his greatest hits. Out of the three I think that this is his most accessible book and, whilst this post is about it, I do feel a bit of context about the other two novels I’ve mentioned is necessary to explain my feelings on the book and the author.
I really enjoyed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The dynamic between the Earth ruling over the Moon like a colony, the “moon-speak” and “moon-writing” (difficult at times but granting the text a uniquely characteristic style), the family dynamics with male-female ratio disproportion, the idea of farming tunnels and the sentient supercomputer are the top things that I’d highlight from the novel. Overall a really good science-fiction story with some very interesting elements and ideas.
On the other hand, we have Stranger in a Strange Land which was the first Heinlein novel I ever read. I got the 1991 uncut version that has the original manuscript, as opposed to the version published in 1961 that edited out nearly a quarter of the book. I chose SIASL first because it was his most popular novel (apparently the open sexuality in the book struck a chord with the hippie movement back in the sixties) and is considered by many one of the great science-fiction novels. I also wanted to know if that popularity was deserved and if the book was any good. Random Trivia: Do yourself a favour and listen to the fantastic Iron Maiden song titled after the book – and read the lyrics damn it -.
I don’t know about the 1961 edited version, but the 1991 unabridged version has some serious pacing issues and was a chore to finish. A very engaging first chapter lead to a slug of characters going over tedious conversations and themes of identity and society again and again (which is fine when you don’t write about it more than fifty times). I don’t think I could cover all the themes of that novel in a single post, and mind you I’m always cautious about quoting single phrases without context, BUT to explain why I don’t get Heinlein I want to quote a phrase from this novel: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault”. Now this phrase was told by a character that enjoys stripping – if memory serves me well – in front of people so that may imply a certain twisted view in regards to sexuality and political correctness, and I also understand that some books are products of their times and maybe the world back then was more sexist and this novel is just the result of that (unless Mad Men is lying to us). However the book is plagued by these type of comments and this particular phrase was so blunt that I just made me think about what the author (not the novel) was trying to communicate to me as a reader.
Coincidentally, I experienced a similar issue with Starship Troopers. Like SIASL, it starts with a great first chapter and then it is just turns out to be the story of a young man enlisting in the military, his career – with some aliens way in the background posing as a threat – and plenty of text explaining the importance,virtues and challenges of said military life. Now, I want to be very clear: I actually respect a lot the decision to join the military and I have zero problems with that ( I am specially grateful on those occasions where their actions are in line to protect me). I do however have a problem with military propaganda, and I don’t know if I’m the only one that got that feeling reading the book but I could not shake it off. Much like SIAS, Heinlein does not have a problem to hammer his point again and again. In this case being: Military life will make a man out of you and it is the greatest thing since porn (I may be simplifying but you get the idea). It is exactly how Heinlein insists on this message again and again what brings me to the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers.
This movie fits my definition of a guilty pleasure: the acting is really bad and over the top and the cheesiness factors are dialed-up to eleven. But what can I say? I can clearly see the flaws but I still love it. I first saw this as a kid and it just blew my mind. The special effects still hold up, and it is yet another great film by a director that knows how to use gore effectively and is also a great science-fiction adapter mister Paul Verhoven. Starship Troopers is his second adaptation of a science-fiction writer after Total Recall, which is based on the short story by Philip K. Dick “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, and his third science fiction movie (his first was Robocop and his fourth and last was Hollow Man).
Having read the book many years later, I have to say that it has helped to increase my respect for the movie. In the movie, all the military worship of the book is turned upside down and delivered with a spot on parody of a militarized society. The movie is smart enough to laugh at absurdly obvious military propaganda. It is actually kind of brilliant seeing what Vernhoven did (I recall reading that he discarded the book entirely after growing tired with the first few pages) and the direction he decided to take with the film. It is like a bizarre version of Heinlein’s novel in all the right ways, and I can only imagine that if he’d ever watch it he’d despise it. Doing a bit of digging I found this video of Michel Ironside talking about the film,its message, Vernhoven, the book and the direction they took. I’d highly recommend it as it echoes some of the impressions I’ve described here.
So taking into account all of the above you might imagine that I disliked the book, but surprisingly enough I did not. I didn’t love it either and it took me a while to read it, but I’m glad I got to it precisely because of what I said at the beginning. Heinlein’s ideas differ a lot from mine and as crazy (military propaganda) or wrong (the rape quote) as those ideas may seem, I actually enjoy the fact that I’m exposed to them if only for the sheer fact that I can think about why I don’t share them and the reasons behind that line of thinking. I don’t always want to read things that please me or that I agree with. It is actually a great thing reading things that you disagree with, specially if reading them helps you to discover, reaffirm or question your convictions, because ultimately it is up to you to decide how those ideas affect you and to make up your own mind about it.
I finished reading this book the 16th of March 2017, but it took me a while to write all this down a mix of laziness, work and also because I felt there was something important for me to think about after reading it. Last, a message from my sponsor: