[Oct. 8, 1959] Shooting Stars (Heinlein’s Starship Soldier)

Robert Heinlein newest short novel is out, and my feelings toward it are much mixed.

If you have a subscription to The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (FASF), you’ve no doubt read Heinlein’s Starship Soldier, by turns a coming-of-age story, a depiction of boot camp life, and a clearing house for Heinlein’s unique socio-poltical views.

In brief, it’s the tale of Juan Rico, a young man of Filipino extraction, who enlists in the army on the eve of an interstellar war.  As a member of the Mobile Infantry, he is one of the few elite pilots of a suit of powered armor, which packs enough punch to take out a 20th century tank batallion.  Platoons of be-suited soldiers are ejected from orbital spacecraft, whereupon they parachute to the surface and engage the enemy.  In this book, the enemy is a race of intelligent, hive-minded bugs, whose capacity for perfect coordination gives them the upper hand in the first stage of the war.  While it is suggested that humanity eventually wins the war, it is never explicitly explained how.

Heinlein’s future is unique: after the Disorders wracking all of the world’s governments at the end of the twentieth century, groups of veterans take power throughout the world, eventually combining into a federal government under which only veterans attain citizenship.  The resulting society is depicted as liberal and pleasant.  One of the characters, a teacher of “History and Moral Philosophy” (a required high school course) explains that, as a system, it is no more arbitrary than any other democratic system where the franchise is barred from some on the basis of age, origin, or profession.  The teacher suggests that the system works not because veterans are any better or smarter than civilians, but because they’ve had “skin in the game,” and thus prioritize the welfare of the whole over themselves.

I have trouble buying this: veterans are criminals about as often as anyone else (and the teacher even concedes this in the story), and given that the Roman Empire’s citizenry was largely composed of veterans by the end of its existence, I don’t know that history backs Heinlein’s dream.

Still, there’s no denying that the story is superbly written, and the society Heinlein depicts is interesting.  More importantly, Johnny Rico is a great character (if perhaps not sufficiently differentiated from Heinlein’s other 18-year olds).  The first half of the short novel begins in media res with Rico raiding a world of the Bugs’ co-belligerents, the Skinnies.  The remainder of this installment deals with Rico’s enlistment and training, which is incredibly realistic and engaging.  It ends with Rico as one of the 9% who make it through boot camp to become a space soldier.

Part two is also excellent though somehow more detached.  It is mostly told in recollection, describing the start of the Bug War and Rico’s early involvement.  It segues into present tense with Rico entering Officer Candidate School.  The novel ends with Rico leading his old platoon with his father as platoon sergeant.  Near the end, we get a lot of moralizing from the mouth of one of Rico’s later teachers with some vague anti-Communist screeds and analogies to the recent Korean War.  However, while there is much talk of the value of a military-run society, there is no reference to nudity or cats, so it’s not quite all one might expect of a Heinlein novel.

Heinlein is a veteran, and he went through bootcamp and Navy O.C.S.  He knows whereof he speaks, and it shows.  I’ve no fault with the writing or the story.  My main issue is that the thing feels unfinished.  We have an excellent beginning, with hints of some really excellent depiction of future space combat (much better than as shown in Dickson’s recent Dorsai!), then there is an engaging training montage, some good world set-up… and then it just ends.  It really needs a return to the style of the first half, with perhaps another battle to end the story as it began.

I understand Heinlein is releasing a stand-alone novel later this year.  Since the serial is too short for publication, I’m hoping he’ll develop it further.  He was likely limited by the size of the vehicle (FASF), which was back to its usual 128 pages this month.

I will say this for the book.  Not only is there a nice, poly-ethnic cast, including a non-White protagonist, but women are a key part of the military.  Whereas the Mobile Infantry are generally (wholly?) male, the Navy is primarily female, and women make the best pilots.  In fact, it was Rico’s high school sweetheart who enlisted first, and she distinguishes herself as much as Rico, though she is, sadly, incidental to the story. 

Next time, I’ll discuss the rest of the magazine.  In the mean time, Ad Astra!

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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