Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein

Review published on March 5, 2015. Reviewed by jj redfearn

The first few pages, the last few pages and a page or two scattered around the rest of the book are high quality military science fiction of the video game variety. Powered personal armour complete with guns, missiles, air supply, jetpacks, night vision, radar. Skinny aliens, bugs, tech sergeants. Spaceships, war and mayhem. The film pretty much restricted itself to this element of the book. The rest is very different indeed.

Thomas Paine has a lot to answer for. He argued that people have inherent rights and that governments and government charters act to take those rights away. The bit about charters is probably true – charters grant rights solely on the matters defined by the charter and hence remove rights on everything else. A sharp two way sword. Unfortunately he’s wrong about people having rights in the first place, and that idea started today’s massive human rights industry.

Responsibilities come with being human, rights do not. You have a responsibility to look after yourself and others, you have no right to expect others to look after you. You are responsible for finding yourself work and an income, you have no right to go and demand them (try it and see what happens). Employers have a responsibility to provide fair pay to all employees; employees have no right to inflated salaries and excessive bonuses. If you borrow you have a responsibility to keep the terms of your agreement, you have no right to disown it if you can’t pay. If you lend you have a responsibility to ensure the borrower can pay. If they can’t, or won’t, you must take responsibility for what you do next. You are responsible for feeding your family, you have no right to expect someone else do it for you. You are responsible for getting an education, you should be fighting tooth and nail for it, acquiring learning through whatever means you can: you can’t get top exam results by right, you have to work at it. If you don’t revise you shall not pass. You are responsible for not evading taxes, you have no right to evade them: whether you’re hiding a Swiss bank account or getting a discount for cash it makes no moral difference, both are unethical and wrong. Because both cases mean you’re immoral, cheating. Rich or poor there’s no degree of immorality, its black and white, you live up to your responsibilities or you don’t.

Governments have matching responsibilities because we have determined that they should. The responsibility to ensure that the weak aren’t bullied, the poor aren’t destitute, the sick don’t go untreated, the young have access to an education. The responsibility to levy sufficient taxes to pay for the things we’ve told them we need, and not to use our money on things we don’t need. The responsibility not to mortgage the future by spending beyond our means today.

Most of Starship Troopers is, fundamentally, about responsibilities. It takes you through Mobile Infantry boot camp, learning your trade as a soldier but also learning about why you should fight, what’s right and what wrong, why only soldiers in this future world have the right to vote (or rather why meeting your responsibility to defend your planet and counter all threats to it no matter what cost to yourself is regarded as a prerequisite to being enfranchised). How the mobile infantry never leaves people behind – one for all and all for one. How soldiers are responsible for extracting their injured fellows, but have no right to be rescued. After boot camp there’s a brief fighting intermission and then its on to officer cadet school. More philosophy of war kicks in, and carries on through to the end.

The book was controversial when it was written, after Korea, before Vietnam and during the cold war in 1959. It’s probably even more controversial now. It sounds very right wing, yet its very much Kennedy: think not what can your country do for you but what you can do for your country. Its a lengthy treatise on doing what’s right because its right, because there are fundamental human responsibilities and those fundamental inherent responsibilities are what define rightness.

Go read it and see what you think.

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