Thursday, March 15, 2007

A quick note to fans of Paul Verhoeven's film version of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers

Say what you want about the film, but the novel (a) is not fascist and (b) is not racist (it very well might be species-ist, however, but that's a discussion for another time). I've written a little about this before (in fact this was one of the first things I posted on this blog), but circumstances have inspired me to bring it up again.

I'm going to spoil the book, so if you haven't read it but are just pretending that you have, stop reading now:

First, the book does celebrate the military, but it doesn't gloss over the "chickenshit" parts of military life, nor does it make war out to be anything less than Hell.

Second, the society depicted in the book is not one where you have to serve in the military in order to earn the right to vote. Rather, the vote is earned by entering into Federal Service, only a small portion of which is the military. As for being a militaristic society, the book makes it fairly clear that the Mobile Infantry is looked down upon by most citizens. It is a society that puts a lot of emphasis on civic responsibility.

Third, Juan Rico is not a blond, blue-eyed Aryan (like he is in the movie): he's Filipino, though we don't find this out until the last page. This is part of Heinlein's point, I think: all the non-Western/non-Anglo names for characters in the book are his way of suggesting that creating a functioning multi-cultural society requires something like the Federal Service, i.e. putting time in in order to become a fully-fledged citizen creates a bond among people that, if not stronger than kin and cultural ties, is at least as strong.


Robby K. said...

While Verhoeven is off in terms of interpreting "Starship Troopers", it seems to be somewhat in line with the Heinlein of "Farnham's Freehold" and "Sixth Column". I don't think Heinlein was a racist (Samuel R. Delany didn't think he was, either), but those books are racist and jingoistic. Along similar lines, I remember a Larry Niven story, "The Return of William Proxmire" that was a fawning paean to the Robert Heinlein that Verhoeven envisions (and Niven in the story seems to see that as a good thing). There's a bit in the story about Admiral Heinlein keeping the Soviets out of space, which seemed ridiculous (So what did he shoot Sputnik out of the sky with?)

Jon Hastings said...

Hi Robby,

The thing is, Verhoeven isn't exposing Heinlein's buried racism/fascism nor is he emphasizing one facet of the novel while ignoring others: he's grafting his own obsession with Nazi propaganda onto Heinlein's novel. The "ironic" fascistic stuff in Verhoeven's Troopers is in line with what he's done in Soldier of Orange, Robocop, and Total Recall. Because of this, bringing up Sixth Column and Farnham's Freehold seems to me to just muddy the waters: the treatment of race in those books is more complicated than what Heinlein is ironizing here (especially when you take into account how the racial issues in those books are dealt with in the context of everything else those books deal with). That said, Sixth Column isn't all that good and Farnham's Freehold seems to go overboard in trying to provoke for provocations sake.

I like Verhoeven's Troopers (I like most of his movies), but he's not much of a thinker when he's in his big-budget Hollywood mode, in terms of both breadth or depth. His Troopers has one idea: it's a clever idea and Verhoeven and the screenwriters find lots of neat ways to dramatize it, but I don't think it's a profound idea and the movie ignores the kinds of complications and messiness that Heinlein's novels (even things like Sixth Column and Farnham's Freehold) try to confront.