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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Thursday, December 13, 2012

1960 Hugo Award Winner- 'Starship Troopers' by Robert A. Heinlein

St59.jpgThere is a lot to say about 'Starship Troopers,' not quite the first but definitely the most well known of the 'military' science fiction novels.  Any novel with war in space, and especially any novel where men fight anything that resembles a 'bug' owes a large debt to this novel.  Heinlein actually served in the military, and it shows in the realism of his writing, anyone who has only seen the movie won't believe that but the book is much more subdued.  Heinlein writes about the military in a way devoid of irony that shows his respect for the men in uniform (at least in this novel), and his approach to the universe is well handled and often imitated.

It has been awhile since I've read the book, I first read 'Starship Troopers' when the movie came out, so that can date it for you.  Before I read this I had actually read 'Stranger in a Strange Land,' and had a hard time placing the author of this stern, pro-military novel with the alternative super-hippy who wrote that book.  A person almost needs a flow chart to track the wild swings in Heinlien's ideas over time.  Heinlein never shied away from placing his personal beliefs at the forefront of his work, and those beliefs changed decade to decade.  Though that discussion will have to wait for some later post and I'll try to keep this more focused on the novel we are reviewing.

There is no way to view Troopers as anything but a pro-military, almost pro-fascism, sci-fi novel.  Heinlein himself even said that it glorifies the military.  People will either agree or disagree with this statement and Heinlein received his fair share of vitriol over the novel.  Large portions of the novel are info dumps where a substitute for the authors voice describes the world in which they live, a world where voting is limited only to those with military service, and flogging is an acceptable punishment for the armed services.  It is a novel meant as a counterpoint to the communism of the day (a theme you will see quite often with novels written around this time), in which Karl Marx is mocked and any reward not earned through hard work is shunned.

In fact, so much of the time in this novel is spent on discussing politics that there is really not that much action.  There are only a few action scenes in the novel, and only once or twice are the infamous 'bugs' even spotted.  The bulk of the novel is spent discussing life in the military, and describing the world in which the characters live.  That is all well and good, but more than one author has written a novel set in pretty much the same world as Troopers just to include more action.

Now, I love this book.  And I've kind of skipped over the majority of the military stuff because in my mind that's not the reason this book should be placed on a pedestal.  The reason this is an important work of fiction is that the main character is not a white male.  No description of the main character is given until almost the mid-point of the book when the protagonist looks into a mirror (I know, I know, cliche) and describes himself.  No mention is made of the characters race at any other point in the book, it is a non-issue.  To understand the importance of this you need to place yourself in the time when this book was written, and to understand the readership of science fiction at the time.  The 60s were well before the New Wave of science fiction when it would have been commonplace to mess with social conventions, and in the 60s again it was not uncommon to encounter blatant racism in your science fiction.

The readers of sci-fi in the 60s were predominately white males and the writes were almost entirely white males in western culture.  For a teenager reading this book it might be the first time they had ever read a novel in which the main character was not a white male.  And for the fact to be buried so deep in there, and only mentioned in passing, as if the end of racism was a foregone conclusion that didn't even deserve an argument just blows my mind.  For Heinlein to write a novel about a near fascist state that is completely colorblind concerning race just blows my mind, and I can't stop gushing about it.  Oftentimes it only takes one line, one little fact, one offhand description to place a novel above the competition and win it the Hugo or Nebula, and I believe this was what put Troopers above 'Dorsai!,' another military sci-fi written in the same year, and a much more entertaining novel if you're looking for interstellar war.

In all probability Heinlein didn't put any thought into the race of his character, I don't know.  Maybe he threw it in offhand or just wanted to make it different.  But, once the work of art has left the hands of the creator it becomes ours to interpret as we will, and looking back knowing what we know now about the sixties and about the genre at that time, this one small passage from the book marks 'Starship Troopers' as more than deserving of the 1960 Hugo award.

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