Sunday, 25 February 2018

Why We Need Starship Troopers

In 1958 the United States under President Eisenhower decided to suspend US nuclear tests undergoing negotiations for all nuclear powers to suspend nuclear weapons testing. Former naval serviceman and science fiction author Robert Heinlein thought this was a terrible idea, and in his view when nuclear testing continued it proved that the West could not trust the Soviets. In a few weeks he penned what would become one of his most famous novels, Starship Troopers, and in it he "clarified" his military and political views. Since then it has been a science fiction classic and a staple of military science fiction.

However, it has also been controversial for some.

This point arises with the news that there is a planned Starship Troopers reboot in the pipeline. One that, apparently, intends to be more faithful to the original novel. In doing so though, this same publication asks, is Starship Troopers too controversial for the modern world to be adapted?

My answer is, absolutely not.

One of the enduring "criticisms" of the novel is that it promotes fascism, never mind that the Terran Federation as depicted in the novel is hardly fascistic in its nature, and that the author himself expanded on Federal Service as being something that did not require military service. Indeed, it seems many modern critiques of the novel revolve around those who have never even read the novel and can only throw criticism at the utterly unfaithful 1997 film which was made as pure action satire. Though in the day the novel was accused of promoting fascism, even commentators at the time had trouble substantiating that in the absence of the novel promoting a cult of personality around some party or a leader, or even the general disdain for opposing ideologies.

Charges that the novel promotes "militarism" however, might be better sustained, if one does not account for narrator bias of course. Juan "Johnnie" Rico is a kid who signs up for Federal Service as a way of rebelling against his father, and in doing so is sucked into a world he doesn't fully understand, but soon comes to regard as a world of disciplined life in service to ones country, as well as carrying out a fundamental role and duty in earning his right to vote based on performing a service to his country.

The biggest issue numerous commentators will overlook when reading this novel is that we, save for some interaction with a few characters outside the military, never get a look into the life of regular civilians in the Terran Federation. The only real indication we have of that is when Johnnie is arguing with his clearly wealthy father over the issue and the man is dismissive of both the franchise and the Federal Service because they are well off enough not to have to worry about it. To quote the novel itself:
"Son, don't think I don't sympathize with you; I do. But look at the real facts. If there was a war, I'd be the first to cheer you on - and put the business on a war footing. But there isn't, and praise God there never will be again. We've outgrown wars. This planet is now peaceful and happy and we enjoy good enough relations with other planets. So what is this so-called 'Federal Service'? Parasitism pure and simple. A functionless organ, utterly obsolete, living off the taxpayers. A decidedly expensive way for inferior people who would otherwise be unemployed to live at public expense for a period of years, then give themselves airs for the rest of their lives. Is that what you want to do?" - Starship Troopers, Chapter 2, Pg. 30
In the same chapter Juan's father prides his family for "having tended their own garden and stayed out of politics" for one hundred years. Seeing as he is wealthy and a man who prides himself on his non-political stance, this is hardly a pro-fascist view point where slavish devotion to the Party and the State is expected. His father even wants (and is legally entitled to) write a letter admonishing the school for allowing a pro Federal Service teacher to be "pushing an agenda" on his kids in school. Even later a civilian doctor scoffs at the whole enterprise as a " purely nominal political privilege" rather than an enforced position.

The book has also gained allegations of being "racist" because it refers to the alien enemies the "arachnids" as "Bugs" rather than by a proper biological name. This neatly overlooks the tendency in military culture to nickname enemies, similar to "Gook" or "Haji" in military parlance of the last half century.

More accurately the book could be called anti-communist, with numerous aspersions cast on the Bugs as being collectivist, and he has famously said "Specialization is for insects." And it is in that sense very fair to assume that the book, which remember was written in reaction to American deals with the Soviets, is anti-communist. Some biting commentary is thrown on the ideas of Marx, as Heinlein has done in many works. This, is a perfectly fair criticism then.

However, beyond that many criticisms of the work either don't stand the test of time, or simply of its reading. The biggest criticism by far is of the novels explicit endorsement of the restricted franchise, where one must earn the right to vote rather than be born with it. This is probably the most enduring controversy of the book, and Heinlein himself commented on the matter in 1980:
“Veteran” does not mean in English dictionaries or in this novel solely a person who has served in military forces. I concede that in commonest usage today it means a war veteran…but no one hesitates to speak of a veteran fireman or a veteran school teacher. In STARSHIP TROOPERS it is stated flatly and more than once that nineteen out of twenty veterans are not military veterans. Instead, 95% of voters are what we call today “former members of federal civil service.” - Expanded Universe
Although what Heinlein says here and what is in the book has been hotly debated (and is perhaps best summed by by James Gifford's 1996 essay "The Nature of “Federal Service”in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers") it is something that bears thinking about for the purposes of this piece. The charge that the book is polemic or a case of author soapboxing, is undoubtedly correct. However, this is a strength/weakness of all of Heinlein's works in one way or another.

All this being said, why is Heinlein's Starship Troopers important in the 21st century?

That is an issue which I believe this potential faithful adaption can address. With all the criticism the work has received over the years it would undoubtedly be subject to similar panning or criticism from those with political agendas were it faithfully produced today. Though the article in question posted above compares it to Ender's Game a work which met middling success on the big screen, I think Heinlein's novel would be better adapted and could be for two reasons.

The first is that unlike Ender whose author was alive and unapologetically delivering views many mainstream individuals found offensive, Heinlein is very dead and his works so broad in their scope and idealism, that accurately targeting his ideology and legacy would be a difficult task for most modern critics. Couple that with a modern political climate where calling someone a fascist is almost routine and where the alt-right could latch on to the work as easily as centrists and members of the hard left, and well, you'd have a broad audience to argue over it.

Secondly this work could easily be made in the same vein as the old animated series, the unfortunately incomplete Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, a military adventure first, and a piece of political commentary second. This would set it on its merits as an action movie first, and its political commentary as a secondary piece within a greater framing device which, let's be honest, is probably more exciting than kids in a simulated war environment.

Though why do we need this in the modern day? There's no cold war currently raging, our democracies are free with no communist elements to subvert them. And our elections are free and fair, why should we care about the restricted franchise in an action story?

Simply put, we need to be told to vote. And if anything, the commentary in Starship Troopers is very explicit on the need to respect the franchise and why it is important.

In our modern elections in North American, we always have far less than the number of registered voters coming out to vote. In Canada that changed dramatically in the 2015 Federal election but in the United States, on average only some 50% of voters turn up, but that too has dramatically changed. The important question is, will this be the norm of more voters turning out, or merely an outlier from charged elections? There are also allegations of voter suppression emerging and charges that it is increasing, even in normally considered cuddly Canada. So any debate about the rights of the franchise and the importance of voter rights should be considered a step in the right direction to ensure that these higher voter turnout numbers are not merely an anomaly.

Even if claims of voter suppression or vote rigging are little more than partisan hysteria, we have to know that the right to vote is one that is enshrined in Western democracies, and we have easy counter examples across the world of what happens when the right to vote or oppose your government is taken away, and that it can be taken away.

The new generation of voters is one that has access to the more information than they could ever want at the click of a button or the swipe of a finger. Could a controversial movie about restricted franchise and fighting aliens be good for their understanding of democracy? I would argue yes. If anything it will create a lively debate about the need to use our right to vote before it is abused by higher powers.

So by all means, lets deliver up a controversial movie in that regard.

A second reason, one no less important, is that more than any commentary from contemporary films about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, a work that unashamedly extols the virtues of servicemen and women is needed in the Western world. You can't politicize a fictional war after all, and some bright and positive commentary on why men and women serve their armed forced would be a welcome change in the modern media. Even including the scene where the deserter is executed would be a good thing since it would be a reflection on the good and bad apples in the armed services. We should support our veterans no less than the Terran Federation supports theirs.

As a final note, Starship Troopers is deservedly a science fiction classic. It arguably created some of the most well known tropes in science fiction today, space marines, bug wars, powered armor, and has created numerous imitators even in the modern world. Even Marko Kloos's Terms of Enlistment and his Frontlines series as a whole owes much in narrative format and style (or at least spiritually) to the book. It deserves some sort of faithful adaptation rather than a parody by a man who admittedly didn't even give a rats ass about the source material. Let's get it made.

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