23 April 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 51

Blogging, like reading, does not happen in a vacuum. Two months ago, I had dinner with a good friend and she mentioned that one of her favourite people in the world (an elite group which of course includes your cheesy blogger) had said that his favourite novel of all time was Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. But while her first instinct was to give it a try as well, she admitted that she was having a hard time even wrapping her mind around the idea that something with a title like Starship Troopers could be anyone's favourite novel. (LOL!)

So I told her, "I want to do a space-themed month on my blog. If Starship Troopers wins the readalong poll, then I'll read it with you, so at least you won't be alone." =P

But I'll confess that the first chapter was pretty rough to get through . . .

. . . Presently, [Sergeant] Jelal stepped out in front of us, looked us over, and shook his head sadly. "What a gang of apes," he growled. "Maybe if you'd all buy it this drop, they could start over and build the kind of outfit the Lieutenant expected you to be. But probably not--with the sort of recruits we get these days." He suddenly straightened up, shouted, "I just want to remind you apes that every one of you has cost the gov'ment, counting weapons, armour, ammo, instrumentation, and training, everything, including the way you overeat, has cost, on the hoof, better'n half a million. Add in the thirty cents you are actually worth and that runs to quite a sum." He glared at us. "So bring it back! We can spare you, but we can't spare that fancy suit you're wearing. I don't want any heroes in this outfit; the Lieutenant wouldn't like it. You got a job to do, you go down, you do it, you keep your ears open for recall, you show up for retrieval on the bounce and by the numbers. Get me?"

I've just quoted a passage from Heinlein. With a week to go in April, it finally feels legitimate to remind everyone that In Space, No One Can Hear You Blog.

Chapters 1 to 4

As I was saying, I actually found the first chapter, as action-packed and fast-paced as it was, kind of boring. And I had a "What did I get myself into this time?" moment. Well, several, actually. Of all the books I have decided to read for leisure, Starship Troopers is probably the furthest out of my comfort zone.

Then I got to Chapter 2 and realised that what I was reading was a novel of ideas. The story is more than the spectacle of futuristic military action scenes; it is about the formation of the infantrymen in those scenes. As Sergeant Jelal tells the men right before a routine drop, each of them cost over half a million dollars to prepare. That's just a shade more than it takes to study Medicine in one of the top schools today--and I'm also counting living expenses.

Based on the first chapter, the most an infantry man has to know is when to open his parachutes, how to get a reading on his squad, when to advance in formation, and how to operate the weapons and equipment he has been given to use. He may have to do some thinking on his feet, of course--and we do get some of that right before the squad is picked up again by their pilot. But in general, it's neither brain surgery nor rocket science.

Or is it? The sergeant at the recruiting station begs to differ with me.

"Most people think that all it takes is two hands and two feet and a stupid mind. Maybe so, for cannon fodder. Possibly that was all that Julius Caesar required. But a private soldier today is a specialist so highly skilled that he would rate 'master' in any other trade; we can't afford stupid ones. So for those who insist on serving their term--but haven't got what we want and must have--we've had to think up a whole list of dirty, nasty, dangerous jobs . . . Take that young lady who was here--wants to be a pilot. I hope she makes it; we always need good pilots--not enough of 'em. Maybe she will. But if she misses, she may wind up in Antarctica, her pretty eyes red from never seeing anything but artificial light and her knuckles calloused from hard, dirty work."

The speaker is a multiple amputee who claims that he was assigned to recruitment so that anyone who isn't quite ready for military service can take one look at him and change their minds, with no hard feelings. Someone like, you know, the narrator. (Note the chain of coincidences and other people's opinions which is the only reason he signs up for the service at all.) 

But apparently, that is how you hook the ideal infantryman--whose first choice is never the infantry. As the narrator's father tried to tell him: "Have you ever tried to lead a pig?" LOL!

The chapters on basic training were really fun to read. Camp Arthur Currie is a "school setting" as much as Hogwarts--but one which is designed to graduate only "the best." What it means to be "the best," we will find out in future chapters. In the meantime, I find the following passage worth quoting . . .

I may have given the impression that boot camp was made harder than necessary. This is not correct.

It was made
as hard as possible and on purpose.

It was the firm opinion of every recruit that this was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer.

It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organised to be cruelty for the sick pleasure of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of the surgeon.

Which brings us back to Medical school! =D But seriously, the "syllabus" of basic training must have been put together by the military's best psychologists. And if minds like theirs don't come cheaply, then neither do fully capable, fully trained infantrymen.

What do you think of Chapters 1 to 4?

1) Have you ever imagined a "Conspiracy Theory" version of your life, in which you did not choose your current job of your own free will, but were conditioned, manipulated and led into it without your realising it? If so, do share!

2) If you could design the entire "basic training" for someone who had to do your job, would there be anything that would give them the impression of "sheer meanness [and] calculated sadism," but in fact be absolutely necessary? 

Image Source: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein


Bob Wallace said...

In reality many of those who knew Heinlein did not like him. Those who knew ERB (as he is usually known) did like him. I was never much of a fan of Heinlein except for his very early stuff.

Enbrethiliel said...


I know you wanted Burroughs to win--and I did, too. But Starship Troopers is shaping up to be a good read, anyway. =)

Darwin said...

So, I'm a leeetle bit behind on finishing the second, but it's a third read (though after a good fifteen years) for me so I'll go ahead and comment.

I think you're right to see this as more of a novel of ideas than an action novel. Sure, it has a certain amount of action in it, but Heinlein's point seems more to be to describe how he thinks the military and society should be related, not to tell an exciting adventure yarn.

I have to say, that's also why it's not one of my favorite of his novels. My favorite is Tunnel In The Sky, though I'm fond of most of his "Juvies" from Rocketship Galileo through Have Spacesuit Will Travel. With Starship Troopers, Heinlein decided he'd get "serious" and convey his ideas, and I think that generally wasn't a good move. The result is the long sections we get in Starship Troopers where the main character is just listening to someone lecture.

At the same time, we have a lot of the classic Heinlein marks: The not-quite-so-bright main character, a couple of incredibly smart and capable female minor characters who the main character never quite seems to realize are more than decorative, the wide-eyed Golden Age of Science Fiction enthusiasm combined with Heinlein's particular conviction that humanity will do well in the galaxy because we're simply the meanest SOBs around.

1) Have you ever imagined a "Conspiracy Theory" version of your life, in which you did not choose your current job of your own free will, but were conditioned, manipulated and led into it without your realising it? If so, do share!

Actually, the semi-accidental way that the main character becomes a mobile infantryman strikes me as a fairly realistic touch. And I kind of like the question that determines whether he'll get K-9 duty or infantry: If he can't be trusted to sneak the dog in, he obviously doesn't care enough about dogs to do K-9 duty.

Dauvit Balfour said...

So, I know I didn't really sign up for this (nor participate in the last one I signed up for, though I did read at about the same pace as you, finishing during the Octave), but since I love this book maybe I'll pop in now and then.

I think Darwin (and you) are right on point about it being a novel of ideas.

There's also something more that is important to remember (that is, if what my dad told me about this book when he read it to us all those years ago was true).

Heinlein set aside another project to write this one, with a very specific reason, and while the author filibusters might seem like a reason, they are just setup for making a very direct statement: screw the bastards who left our boys in Korea behind.

I don't think any of Heinlein's adult novels (at least not the ones I've read) have been quite so much about adventure (in the pure, John Carter slays thousands of bad guys to get to his Beloved sort of way) as they have been about the characters. This, Tunnel in the Sky, Farmer in the Sky, Double Star, Citizen of the Galaxy, Starman Jones, and even Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, are all novels about boys becoming men through adversity. As far as threads go, I think it's a fine one. One might call it a theme of identity. Where he loses that theme (in Puppet Masters and The Sixth Column, of the ones I've read) his writing suffers.

But this isn't a comparative readalong - my apologies. The bootcamp scenes are some of my favorites in the book. And so:

2) If you could design the entire "basic training" for someone who had to do your job, would there be anything that would give them the impression of "sheer meanness [and] calculated sadism," but in fact be absolutely necessary?

Probably, though I haven't given much thought to designing a software bootcamp. Off the top of my head, I'd take a couple of core classes from my undergrad and combine them into a Theory & Practice sort of course that didn't leave much time for anything but thinking, eating, and sleeping. Probably drive 'em mad. 'Course, there'd be other things, more obviously practical, too, but that'd be the one to get me accused of sheer meanness.

Enbrethiliel said...


Darwin -- I just got to the third (or fourth?) big speech and know what you mean. =P It's reading like Ayn Rand in places. LOL!

Since this is my first Heinlein, I wasn't aware of his classic marks. They'll be fun to keep in mind if I decide to keep reading his books. =)

I agree that the hooking of the protagonist is quite realistic. (It reminded me of the way I got hooked by a start-up Business school when I could have gone to a reputable university.) What I was trying to say with my question was that we (or at least our younger, more rebellious selves) often feel that we make certain decisions freely when we're really just reacting to outside forces or letting the tides of chance bear us along. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just really funny to me to think about how I (and the protagonist!) have been played like a harmonica. =P

Dauvit -- That's okay! =) Signing up is a formality. Anyone can join at any time. And please go ahead and share your thoughts as they come to you! (One of my worries is that my limited knowledge of Heinlein and the SF genre in particular will keep the discussion from being as rich as it could be.) All I ask is that you hold back on spoilers.

The bootcamp scenes are so much fun that I wish they were written as if this were a "school story"--with several colourful "classmates" (and instructors!) getting as much attention as the narrator!

DMS said...

I like the sound of a novel of ideas : ) Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Starship Troopers. ~ Jess

Darwin said...

Caught up now an am half way through chapter 5.

You're right, if this were a "school novel" Johnnie would make a couple of close friends in boot camp and they'd stick it together. (Actually, that's exactly how Space Cadet, written the year before, works.) But here we get names that are just familiar enough for us to remember them, but not enough to really become characters. Breckinridge dies in survival training and I had to look back to remind myself who Breckinridge was: the Southerner who stepped forward to fight Sgt. Kim and got his arm broken.

But with the kind of book that Heinlein is writing, we don't get any emotional impact at all from Breckenridge, as a person, "buying the farm". The impact that Heinlein is going for is the sense of belonging: They go back into the mountains and spend two weeks finding the bodies of the two missing guys, them promote them posthumously to private first class and bury them with honors. The message is clear: in the mobile infantry, it doesn't matter who you are, it matters what you are. An infantryman. Hoo-ah!

It's odd coming back to this after so long. I think the last time I read this was when I was trying to decide whether to go into the Air Force or not, back before college. It reads like a radio message from another time, but the sheer bravado of it has a certain warming effect.

Darwin said...

That, and having MrsD read bits of this over my shoulder is reminded me of how much a guys book this is.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jess -- There are more to come, if you're interested! =)

Darwin -- Heck, I had to look up who Jenkins was, and he's the very first supporting character we read about! The other characters are a bit like cogs in a machine--which I'm sure is part of the point. (One line in my draft which didn't make it into this post was about how surprisingly expensive it is to produce one good cog.) It will be interesting to see how Johnnie's character arc develops.

By the way, when is the first time we find out that his name is Johnnie? I do remember him referring to himself as "Johnnie," but I thought it was as an alternative to the more usual "average Joe." =P If it was at the beginning, it totally flew over my head!

To Mrs. Darwin: After the girliness of the Little House books, I guess a "guy's book" was in order. ;-)

Sheila said...

1. Funny, that DID happen to me ... though not with my current job. Where I am now in life, I am quite sure is of my own making. I had a very clear direction in mind for my life, and I followed it. I guess not many people are like that as teenagers and young adults. But I'd been pushed onto one course already and didn't like it.

2. The first month of being a mother IS like bootcamp. It is much, much more than it's reasonable to demand of someone, and yet there is absolutely no helping it. There are whole books written on the topic of adjusting to being a parent, but they don't really convey it because no one remembers any of the details once it's over. There's the sleep deprivation, the physical feeling like you've been beaten to a pulp from giving birth (if you're lucky enough not to be recovering from major surgery) and just the awful awful neediness of the small person that relies absolutely on you. You can't eat, you can't go to the bathroom without him crying. Your personal space doesn't belong to you. Neither does your body. And the well-meaning people who plan to "help" are just delaying the inevitable moment when they go home, your husband goes to work, and you are faced with the reality that nothing you do for YEARS is going to be done without thinking about anyone else. And when you've been accustomed your whole life to getting up more or less when you want, going to bed when you want, eating when you want, taking a day to just chill on a weekend ... it's kind of shattering to suddenly be at the beck and call of a pint-size tyrant.

I'd say it was like a cult, except that cults have simply learned to exploit the human capacity for extreme transformations under certain circumstances. So joining a cult is like having a baby rather than the other way around. The same goes for boot camp, which I think is so much like a cult to be basically indistinguishable.

But it's necessary, it really is. My husband didn't get that experience because he was traveling for work, and by the time he got back I was able to handle things pretty much on my own. It wasn't till the SECOND baby was born that he really faced it ... that reality that once you have kids, you have to be in some ways a different person, and that you will never again belong entirely to yourself.

Enbrethiliel said...


May I disagree that motherhood is like bootcamp? Your description makes it sound as if motherhood is already the war! I mean, there's no dropping out, the second that new life is conceived inside you, is there?

I'll have to keep your comparison between bootcamp and a cult in mind as I continue reading. I knew next to nothing about Starship Troopers when I started reading, but I won't be surprised if the reason it is considered so "controversial" turns out to be that Heinlein suggests the entire military is a cult.

CforC said...

Hey, what a gem of a blog this is!

I could not begin to expect the perspectives offered here, both by the esteemed blogger and the commentors. To me, knowing the book was published/written in 1959 (or so) strongly suggested Heinlein had had it with the contemporary issues, and decided one morning, perhaps after a bad cup of coffee, to deal with it. The rise of China, juvenile delinquency (a "failure in duty" I think he called it)...It's a very reactionary Heinlein (I think some other commentors have sensed and/or expressed this, too).

SST made quite an impact on me when I first received it and read it during my own army training (errr, I'm the person mentioned in the intro supra). Oh yes, son, the Mobile Infantry IS the Army! :-)Whenever I could steal a moment to read, that is, which wasn't very often. Towards the end of my service, few soldiers in the platoon had not heard me share a quote from SST, hehe. Well, except the "rookies" transferred from elsewhere; I held back with them, or else I'd run the risk of losing what little reputation (no, not authority) I had.

I was thus most pleasantly intrigued by the views here. As the juveniles of today would say, it's, like, totally different, right? From conspiracy theory to maternity...splendid.

On the bounce,

Enbrethiliel said...


Welcome, CofC! Thanks for your comment. =D

This is just the first post in the Starship Troopers readalong, so if you find our discussion interesting, I hope that you will read the rest of the posts, which you can find by clicking the Starship Troopers tab. And please feel free to share more of your thoughts! You're currently the only one with a military background who has chimed in, so your perspective is both unique and invaluable to anyone studying this novel.