Monday, May 2, 2005

Random Thoughts on Starship Troopers

I have quite a few friends who are fans of Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers. All of them saw the movie before they read the original Robert Heinlein novel—or any of Heinlein’s other books, for that matter. After they had seen the movie, they tried to read the book, but none of them could get into it. They all made the same complaint: the book wasn’t funny like the movie was. Unfortunately, the experience seems to have turned them off Heinlein for good. Whenever I’ve recommended that they give one of his other books a try, they’ve demurred, citing their disappointment with Starship Troopers.

Now, though I’ve liked everything I’ve ever read by Heinlein and would consider him one of my favorite science fiction writers—even one of my favorite “genre” writers—I really don’t rate hardcore Heinlein fan status because I haven’t read his two most famous (and most controversial) books: Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I’ve avoided reading them partly because I love Heinlein’s straightforward no-nonsense storytelling, and both the fans and the detractors of these books seem to agree that this is where Heinlein starts to get serious and/or pretentious. I suppose I will get around to reading them soon enough, but I am not looking forward to them as much as I am to Citizen of the Galaxy (one of the few of Heinlein’s “juvenile” novels that I haven’t read yet).

But to get back to my friends: I’m mildly peeved that Verhoeven’s movie has spoiled Heinlein for them. I’m also kind of curious because they all had exactly the same reaction to Heinlein’s novel. Of course, if this were only about me and my friends that really wouldn’t be that interesting or informative for anyone else. But looking at the customer reviews from the movie’s Amazon page, it seems my friends aren’t alone. Though there seem to be a few people who appreciate both the book and the movie, most of the movie’s fans either did not read the book or were as disappointed with it as my friends were.

Like my friends, I saw the movie before I read the book, and, again like my friends, I enjoyed the movie. However, I read a bunch of other Heinlein stuff before getting around to the Starship Troopers novel, so when I did read it I was already on Heinlein’s wavelength and didn't have to struggle against preconceptions the movie might've spawned. After reading Starship Troopers, my appreciation for Verhoeven’s film version waned, although I still think it’s a fairly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek action movie along the lines of Verhoeven’s RoboCop. But it really doesn’t hold a candle to the novel, which has its humorous moments, but is essentially a pretty serious story. I can understand why a lot of Heinlein’s fans really dislike the movie and consider it a genuine travesty. Verhoeven claimed that he and the screenwriter were trying to satirize Heinlein’s novel, but the movie is more of a campy send-up of the book then a satire, partly because it ignores the major point of the book and overlooks its subtleties. If anything, Verhoeven’s movie satirizes gung-ho action flicks like Rambo and Top Gun.

Now, the negative reaction many fans of certain novels have towards film adaptations of those novels is common enough to have become a kind of clichĂ©. (I was tempted to write “fans of certain sci-fi, fantasy, or cult novels”, but while these kinds of fans now have the loudest internet presence, this phenomenon originated when educated people started complaining that Hollywood was dumbing down the classics.) I wouldn’t have to spend too much time Googling in order to find Douglas Adams fans who are appalled by the recent film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, I think it’s fairly rare to encounter the opposite phenomenon—as in the case of my friends and Starship Troopers: partisans of the movie who actively dislike the original novel to such an extent that they won’t touch the author’s other books. (Incidentally, this is a different group from that of “fans of the movie who have never read the original novel and have no intention to do so.”) Though I can imagine that someone who was a fan of Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett’s updated version of The Long Goodbye not digging Raymond Chandler’s original novel and its brethren, I don’t actual know anyone for whom this is the case.

The closest counterpart I can come up with is Blade Runner, another movie based on a novel by a cult sci-fi writer. But Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is an even looser adaptation of its source novel than Verhoeven’s movie. The people who made Blade Runner do what just about everyone does when they make a movie based on a Philip K. Dick story does—they pick out one of Dick’s ideas from the story and build a big sci-fi movie around it that really doesn’t have all that much to do with the original story. The cyberpunk noir aspects of Blade Runner’s mood and design, i.e. the movie’s most distinctive feature, are nowhere to be found in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is much more of a metaphysical meditation than a detective story. However, while I know people who prefer Blade Runner to the original novel, I don’t know of anyone who ended up completely writing off Philip K. Dick because of that preference. (This might be because Dick is currently a much bigger deal in hipster/geek circles than Heinlein is. Heinlein’s books are still popular, but his star has dimmed when it comes to his status as a cult sci-fi author: among folks from my generation he’s nowhere near as well received as Dick or Kurt Vonnegut.)

But the thing is—and this is the closest this post is going to get to having a point—I think my friends, and probably a lot of other people who enjoyed the movie of Starship Troopers, would really dig Heinlein’s other books. Starship Troopers, the novel, just isn’t very good place to start. (Incidentally, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t a very good starting place to develop an appreciation for Philip K. Dick, and this I know from personal experience.) I’ve come across quite a few lists on the web recommending the best Heinlein books to start with, but especially for people who liked the Starship Troopers movie but were turned off by the novel I’d recommend the ur-body snatchers novel The Puppet Masters for its wicked sense of humor. A good follow up is Double Star, which is slightly dated—not because of its science or its ideas, but because of its depiction of the acting profession. And if those books don’t do anything for you, then Heinlein is probably just not for you, no matter what your feelings towards Verhoeven’s movie.


Friedrich von Blowhard said...

The Puppet Masters is an outstanding piece of genre fiction, and reflects Heinlein at his best. As various people have pointed out, the idea was ripped off within a few years to make "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" which is not nearly as amusing.

I'm a little surprised you don't think "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" is a good place to start appreciating Philip K. Dick. Which of Dick's books would you prefer? "Ubik"? I suspect not. I enjoyed "Time Out of Joint" when I was a teenager; it might make be a better point of entry.

Steve Sailer said...

Verhoeven has admitted that the first movies he saw as a child in Occupied Holland were Nazi propaganda films, and they've maintained a strong grip on his imagination ever since. In other words, when he claims to be "satirizing" Heinlein, Verhoeven's actually wrestling with his own Nazi-leanings. That's why he cast Aryan blond Caspar von Diehn as the main character Juan Rico, even though Heinlein memorably reveals on the the next-to-last page that his narrator is a Tagalog-speaking Filipino.

Heinlein was a multi-faceted writer who, between 1959 and 1966, published three cult novels with highly disparate audiences. Starship Troopers has long been the first book on the official US Marine Corps reading list. Stranger in a Strange Land was a huge hit with hippies / druggies later in the Sixties. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress remains immensely popular with libertarians, although it's more realistic about the cost of anarchy (the need for neighborliness) than most libertarians would care to admit.

But as Friedrich says, "Puppet Masters" rocks and rolls, while still throwing in a few of Heinlein's weird obsessions like nudism and drugs. Among the juveniles, "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel" might be the standout, but you'll be pleased when you get around to Citizen of the Galaxy. Among the short stories, his 1940 work "Solution Unsatisfactory" is a staggering piece of prophecy, as he asserts that the U.S. will bring WWII to a conclusion in 1945 by the nuclear bombing of an Axis city.

Anonymous said...

What kinds of crazy software do you use to write your posts? Your punctuation marks look crazy in Safari.

Jon Hastings said...


No, not "Ubik" or "VALIS", d'uh... but PKD has a few books that are a little more accessible than "Sheep" which has always felt a little too thrown-together. Though I'm not one of the PKD fans who thinks the short stories are far superior to the novels, I'd probably suggest one of the short story collections as the best starting point. As far as the novels go: "Martian Time Slip" and "Time Out of Joint" are both good starting places for traditional sci-fi fans, but I'd probably recommend "A Scanner Darkly" to folks who aren't as immersed in sci-fi stuff. "ASD" has a clever gimmick and works pretty well as a thriller/crime novel. It also gives a taste of PKD's penchant for mind games.


Heinlein's thing for nudism pops up in the strangest places. At least in "The Puppet Masters" it kinda/sorta makes sense. But in "The Door Into Summer" the introduction of the nudists seems completely arbitrary.

"Stranger"'s cachet with hippies/druggies is what has kept me away from it. Eventually I will have to forgive it for the sinds of its fans.

Sorry the posts are all wacky on your browser. They look fine to me on Firefox and on IE. Oh, well...


Stephen Frug said...

From what you said, I'd bet you'd like THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. If you're afraid of Heinlein's later, slower, bloviating books you might want to avoid STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND (though it's the best of them by far, and he hadn't made the full transition yet by far). But MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS is the last flash of Heinlein's old mode far more than it is in his new mode -- lots of fun, minimal bloviation. Check it out.