Military science fiction is a fairly popular sub-genre but often it swings between two extremes, from ideas that are found usually between liberal and conservative camps. Liberal views of military science fiction often focus on how technology has changed combat and that this change speaks to truths about war that have always been there. While conservative military science fiction deals more with showing that despite how much society has changed, simple virtues that a person, or even a society needs remain unchanged. But both use science fiction as a way of removing the reader from the world that we live in to try to argue for a world that we ought to live instead, for one reason or the other.
Consider two classics of sci fi; Joe Hadleman’s Forever War and Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. These are both polar extremes of views of future warfare with entirely different and contradictory messages despite both depicting futuristic interstellar war. The name Starship Troopers is fairly well known as it was made in to a successful film. Though the film only loosely bears resemblance to the novel it still holds hints as to the views of the conservative thinking found in the book. However Forever War, by comparison, is far less well known and it represents more of the thought from the liberal side of things . Despite such apparent difference both works are considered sci fi classics and both won the Hugo award for science fiction. But it’s a mistake to approach these works looking to reinforce what you already believe about politics or life in general. I mean the whole point of sci fi is to change your perspective, to shake things up. If you wanted more of the same you’d be reading non-fiction, right? So lets get to the two books.
Starship Troopers Preamble
Priority goes to Heinlein, as his work precedes Haldeman by about 15 years. Starship Troopers was written shortly after the Korean War and reflects many of the feelings and moods of the country during the 1950s. Its origin lies in a culture of a nation that had just finished fighting the ideologically successful World Wars against fascism and then went on to fight to a frustrating stalemate on the Korean peninsula with another ideological foe, but this time it was communism.
In the early days of the Cold War the crux of the argument is that we were fighting a set of ideals against a nebulous foe. Where in World War II the enemy was a monolithic state ran from high up by some generalissimo or some self-proclaimed fuhrer. Communism was different, at least on the surface. What frightened people about communism though was how different it was, it was much more of a grassroots movement from the bottom up. To counter this, you had to first win the battle in people’s hearts and minds.
Starship Trooper’s Novel’s Message
The general plot of the film follows the novel but differs significantly with its message. It makes it easier to the whole idea of the novel to consider this. Fascism, like found in Nazi Germany, was all about the individual giving up rights for the sake of the state. A strong state meant the individual sacrificed. Communism, at least on paper, sacrificed the state for the sake of the individual. In a communistic state people were free because the government was weak. A compromise between these two ideologies would be the American society, people have some rights but give up others so that the state is somewhat strong. It is this balance that makes America’s brand of democracy strong and adaptable. But what usually happens with both fascism and communism is that a handful of people wrestle control of the government and both drift towards totalitarianism. Democracy is able to flex and change so we are saved from the worse aspects of fascism and communism. We have balance.
But it is with this almost knee jerk reaction to the threat of communism that Starship Troopers finds itself in, the Cold War communist scare. Individualism is at the heart of American culture so some worried that communism was thought to have posed a uniquely insidious threat. So Heinlein, like many others of his era, sought to show a futuristic world where people gave even more to the state. It is in the protagonist’s military training and early schooling where these ideas are espoused and the voice of the novel is realized. It is seen as even natural as with the quote:
“Social responsibility above the level of family, or at most of tribe, requires imagination– devotion, loyalty, all the higher virtues — which a man must develop himself; if he has them forced down him, he will vomit them out.”
And even the film it is echoed by the main characters teacher:
“Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”
This could be seen as threatening to liberties of the individual, to give up freedom for a greater good. Though in Starship Troopers Heinlein argues that this natural and although it can be thought of as being violent to say; lose life, liberty, and wellbeing, it was worth it to Heinlein. As he wrote any kind of government is force as it compels an individual to obey. You can’t have authority without it;
“When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you’re using force. And force, my friends, is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived.”
And one could argue that warfare is force of government continued on as a mere extension. And that warfare speaks to essential truths of societies. That
“Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms”
Starship Trooper’s Film Adaptation
Interestingly, all of these ideas can still be found lurking in the background of the film, though stretched and skewed. But the devil is in the subtle nuances after all. The director, Paul Verhoeven, admitted to never actually reading the book and the film only really pays lips service to it. Verhoeven probably was appalled by the message of the book. Having lived under a Nazi occupied this undoubtedly left him with a negative disposition with anything drifting towards fascism and I can’t say I blame him for is treatment of the adaptation.
I mean I love Verhoeven’s other works (Robocop, Total Recall). They are counted as sci fi classics in their own right but it’s a little sad that the message was twisted around. In an interview Verhoeven admitted to changing the vibe of the film. When asked why he was making what appeared to be such a fascist adaptation he said:
“If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking bugs!”
The film ignores that nagging voice in your head that tells you’re a nationalistic state is ultimately self-defeating, that it can never amount to greatness. It exaggerates the elements of fascism, taking Heinlein’s vision of a more neutral message found in the novel and pokes a little fun at it. By obnoxiously exaggerating its fascist or more accurately, nationalistic leanings. The film feels cheesy and goofy in a very cyberpunk, or more accurate, “military sci fi punk” way but it’s all done on purpose. It’s meant to poke fun at the idea of fascism. It’s an exercise in satire.
Another stark difference between the film and the book is the violence. Not only the pervasiveness of it, people dying left and right not only in battle but in simple training, but the acceptance of it. Young soldiers die from the giant bugs and people shrug it off and move on. Violence is even done during basic training repeatedly, both in the film and the novel. Corporal punishment, or whipping, is used to correct behavior but the film takes it a bit further. Extreme violence is used to teach simple things. Such as when a soldier questions why knife combat training is needed in a modern military. To this is drill sergeant answers by throwing the blade, pinning his hand painfully to a wall and saying “what good are your hands if you’re deprived of using them.” Immediately calling out “medic” in a routine way hinting that he has casually injured many others before, just business as usual for him. But this really doesn’t make sense, even for a fascist state. To waste time and resources in injuring a valuable asset such as a soldier makes no sense but in the movie this exaggeration drives home the fascist feel. People are mere resources for the state. The book isn’t about wanton violence though, but as with other his other films Verhoeven uses violence as a set piece so this is understandable.
It could be argued that physical violence is an extension of being dominated by a fascist government but the novel never truly embraces this level of sadisim. At times, Heinlein’s work favors the popular the “Poor Bloody Infantry concept.” One where a difficult job has to be done and sacrifices must be made but one doesn’t relish it. It sucks but if we don’t do it then someone else will have to. It’s seen as a necessary price that must be paid for freedom as Heinlein paraphrases the Star Spangled Banner:
“the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war’s desolation”
What is a little more subtle difference is the general look of the film. It’s too “white washed” for lack of a better term. All of the characters are only one race, despite representing the entire planet. Even the main character in the book, where the novel has John Rico as a Filipino in the film he is played by a Caucasian and no other minorities have big roles in the film. The book was much more multi-ethnic. But this could’ve been done on purpose by Verhoeven to emphasis the fascist, or Nazi feel of the forces. Even the uniforms that everyone is wearing bear a strong resemblance to the ones worn by Nazis. None of this was in the novel, they took creative license with it I suppose. But I wonder how Heinlein took the film when it was released? It had to hurt a little to see is message twisted and turned around to serve a totally different message.
Forever War and the Counter Argument
Joe Haldeman’s Forever War is far different than Starship Troopers, yet it’s still military sci-fi. For one, it’s much more obscure; no film as been made for it. However, there is talk of Ridly Scott taking it on with Warner Brothers backing him. But the more significant difference is the more liberal approach to military science fiction and an almost disdain for warfare culture. It isn’t so much that it disdains violence; it does in some ways. It still evokes the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ idea at times. It instead rejects the idea of a culture that seeks out war and violence with others. That’s not to say that the
world of Forever War is perfect, far from it. In fact, much of it is rather wretched and in many ways the book’s realistic world view will make it much more palatable than Starship Troopers. Nobody is perfect in Forever War, especially not the government running the military.
Forever War’s Plot in Brief
Starship Trooper’s plot was far simpler; space travel has made encounters with hostile life a possibility and war is the result. Society must be strong or it will be defeated. Forever War builds on the much more complicated changes in society, near light speed travel, and the resultant time dilation. To put it simply, the faster you go, the more time slows down for you. Meanwhile, time travels at normal speeds for people back at Earth as per rules of relativity.
A soldier traveling in space may leave Earth, rocket off for two years to a distant star, and then consequently have society radically change because 50 years have passed back on Earth. When the main character, William Mandella returns to Earth after his first tour of duty, life on Earth has changed so much that he is alien, an outsider. He doesn’t belong. People speak differently, using strange inflections and slang. Life is much harder and it has become more dangerous with violent crime at every turn. Making a living and feeding yourself has totally changed. Even getting a job and earning a living is hard for Mandella to adapt to.
Mandella’s military service has alienated him from the society who he was sent to protect; he has become an outsider, very reminiscent of the 1970’s post-Vietnam War American culture that the book is very much a product of. The consequence of this alienation is Mandella questioning why it is he is fighting and he really doesn’t have a good answer for it. The whole war seems pointless. Even the leadership seems to have lost track of why it is being fought. The message of the book is that wars of aggression are wrong.
After hundreds of years being lost because of his near light speed travels and many battles where luck seems to be the only thing that determines life or death, the war is suddenly over without much warning. It just stops abruptly. No reason is given, territory lost, or prizes won. It was all because of leadership, who saw a simple difference between two species as hostile and they went to war. They thought this was just like the last ones and we just had to fight. It was one big mistake. Mandella’s feelings in his gut where true. The war was pointless. The death and sacrifices where for nothing, same as the alienation and no real logical purpose.
Contrast and Compare, Conclusions
Forever War is very much a story of the post-Vietnam War era, but people can still identify with it as it speaks to the innate human objections to violence and war. Though it’s diametrically opposed to the ideas found in Starship Troopers, they have too much in common to ignore. Beside being futuristic, they are both coming of age stories. Both speak truths about war and combat but use sci-fi to offer a new perspective. Most interestingly they are like little time capsules that represent the moods and feeling of their era and most importantly, speak to the truths of combat and war that anyone who has studied it or experienced it will understand. They actually have much more in common than at first glance.
It is these common traits that are interesting. So when Haldeman won the Nebula award for Forever War back in 1976 he received a congratulatory letter from Heinlein that “meant more than the award itself” to Haldeman. And though he felt that Heinlein’s Starship Tooper’s message was something he didn’t agree with, he still saw some truth in it, the honesty of the message. Despite their differences the two authors still admired and respected each other because they spoke to some simple truths. It was just that society had changed.
In the end the message of both Starship Troopers and Forever War are totally different, about being pro-war or not, to put things simply. But there is merit in both stories, not only in the method of telling the story but the message that they bring. And although each novel is perfect for its time they can both equally apply to the present because truth is a fluid thing, always moving and reshaping and one has to adapt with it. Reaching down, back in to the sci-fi classics like these, contrasting and comparing is a great mental exercise in objectivity. Not only that, but studying and enjoying such works brings us closer to the truth of warfare, all the while looking at it with a much different lens, one of science fiction.
Have you read Forever War or Starship Troopers? Comment below with your thoughts on how they analyze war and its effects.