Years ago, I read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I remember only a handful of details about the book — the concept of grokking, the story in broad strokes, the religious aspects — and I remember realizing, at the end, that I had read my first mature science fiction book. Not mature in the Rated M sense (which actually is quite immature, when you think about it) — although the book has its moments and is not for kids — but mature in the sense that it wasn’t a space adventure with rocket-ships, robots, and ray-guns.
Now, some of you know that my middle-school son aspires to the Naval Academy, followed by the Marine Corps. Awhile back I ran across a supposed “required reading” list for our military academies, and nestled among The U.S. Constitution and The Art of War was a surprise title I knew only from a movie preview: Starship Troopers. Thinking it might be a sci-fi book to interest Brendan, I googled it; seeing it was written by Heinlein, I thought I’d better check it out first. We borrowed it from the local library, I skimmed it thoroughly for adult content, then let Brendan have a go.
He devoured it, though he struggled with the rapid fire dialogue and military jargon. I finished it last night, and again discovered that I read a mature science fiction novel.
Heinlein supposedly caught a lot of flack for an overtly pro-military (and some say fascist and species-ist) book. I found it a very compelling read, especially considering it was written in 1959. It’s set in the future, and tells the story about a teenager who volunteers to join the military against his parents’ wishes, mostly because his buddy (and a pretty girl they both know) is doing it. The world has changed since the 20th Century — Earth is part of an interplanetary federation, and ruled as a democracy of sorts…except that only those who have served a full term in the military can vote. Apparently in the late 20th century, things on Earth went downhill: parents ceased disciplining children and were no longer considered responsible for the actions of their children; children, as a result, looked to their peers for security and guidance, joining gangs and engaging in selfish (and ultimately criminal) activities. The criminal justice system ceased holding criminals reasonable beyond a fairly comfortable period of isolation with other criminals, followed by early release and frequent re-incarceration. And citizens young and old became so self-involved that they voted only in their narrow self-interests, for policies that padded their pocketbooks, kept them comfortable, or made them feel good about themselves. Vision, long-term impact, and responsibility to others fell by the wayside…
I’m elaborating a bit. Can you tell the book struck a nerve?
The seductive thing about Starship Troopers is that Heinlein seems to have glimpsed the future, and he paints a picture of the aftermath that is un-American in so many ways and yet makes me shake my graying head in agreement that yes, that’s exactly the problem. Only veterans can be entrusted with vote because only they have shown by their actions — by their service and sacrifice — that they will put the long-term interests of the nation and the public good ahead of their own interests, or even their own lives…un-American, but almost makes sense…parents of juvenile offenders are held partly responsible for the crimes of their progeny and share in the flogging…un-American and brutal, but who hasn’t read a news story and said, “They oughta lock up the parents, instead!”
I recommend the book as a good, quick, and thought-provoking read. I can’t recommend the movie, one, because I haven’t seen it, and two, Denise Richards. (Seriously? She’s the wrong kind of of “cute girl” and Carmen was mostly an emotional presence in the book, not a physical one.) Gonna have to read more Heinlein (and maybe re-read Stranger in a Strange Land). Maybe you should, too.