"Powered armour is one-half the reason we call ourselves ‘Mobile Infantry’ instead of just ‘infantry’. Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence, more fire-power, greater endurance, less vulnerability.
A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one. Its not primarily armour – although the Knights of the round table were not armoured as well as we are. It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I.
A Suit is not a ship but it can fly, a little – on the other hand neither spaceships nor atmosphere craft can fight against a man in a suit except by saturation bombing of the area he is in (like burning down a house to get one flea)..."
- – Jonny Rico
Starship Troopers is a science fiction book by Robert Heinlein, later adapted into a series of movies, a cartoon, and several board and wargames. It influenced the look and feel of science fiction militaries that came after -- and it influences real-world militaries as well, as it is on the recommended reading lists for recruits to the United States Marine Corps and Navy.
The basic storyline is that humanity is fighting a war against an implacable species of insectoid aliens called "Bugs" or "Arachnids". The actual front-line combatants are the Mobile Infantry, an elite, all-volunteer force equipped with devastating weapons and armor. Life for the average human is not bad, but the only way to attain citizenship and the perks that go with it, such as suffrage, is to do a term of public service. Military service is only one of the possible avenues to citizenship mentioned in the book, a point often overlooked due to the heavy emphasis placed on the armed forces by the viewpoint character and his comrades.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Would you like to know more?
Starship Troopers is credited with the codification and popularizing of modern science fiction tropes such as powered armor, drop pods, hive-minded insect aliens, and various other Space Marine tropes. The space marine and power armor were concepts invented "proper" in E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman books (with the former term first showing up in a 1932 short story by Bob Olsen), though Heinlein would actually use the phrase "Space Marine" before Smith did; he also openly cited Doc Smith as the main influence on his own writings. The idea of drop pods, meanwhile, has existed as far back as H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Regarding power armor, Heinlein had the advantage of writing in the era of computers, and so was able to give a reasonable high level description of how the technology would (and increasingly, does) work.
Now if you're here, you might be aware Starship Troopers has become a controversial work, in large part because it is often mischaracterized by people who didn't read the book at all and/or experienced the movie first. What many such people might be surprised to learn is that the Starship Troopers book is not a war story in the traditional sense. In fact, there's only a mere handful of scenes where there's any real fighting at all, and it doesn't dwell that much on the action. The war with the bugs simply serves as the backdrop to the book's plot, a majority which deals with the the main character's training, career, and education while in federal service as mobile infantry. Large sections of the book are also concerned with history, philosophy, political science, economics and other social issues ranging from spanking to the purpose of war. After all, this wouldn't BE a Heinlein book without him including a somewhat thorough and lengthy exploration of his ideals.
The Terran Federation
The Terran Federation in Starship Troopers is an interstellar constitutional democratic republic. A constitution limits and describes the powers and responsibilities of government, and citizens vote for representatives. The main difference between their society and ours, is the distinction between citizens and civilians. Civilians have all the normal rights and protections of a liberal democracy, except that they cannot vote. Voting is restricted to citizens, people who complete 2 or more years of federal service. Federal service is generally used for public works projects or military service such as space janitor, terraformer, desk jockey, starship pilot, or mobile infantry. All people are guaranteed the right to become citizens, and the government is compelled to find something useful for them to do in their service without regard to race, religion, sex, class, disability status, or any other identity group.
Federal service is intentionally made difficult, dangerous, uncomfortable, and poorly paid in order to weed out people who are motivated by personal gain and would use their political power for corrupt personal advancement or the advancement of particular factions/classes. The Federation's justification for restricting voting to citizens is to ensure only people who have demonstrated that they actually give a fuck about humanity as a whole are allowed, via their vote, to exercise the violence of the state. They argue that a person's educational, class, wealth, or hereditary status is irrelevant, and by limiting franchise to those with proven moral status, the state will act more justly and responsibly. The proportion of the population that are citizens varies widely by province, from 2% to over 80%. The supreme commander of the Federation military is the Sky Marshal, and only those who have commanded both a Mobile Infantry regiment and a Navy capitol ship at respective points in their careers are eligible for the position. The Terran Federation has enjoyed peace, prosperity, and good relations with its neighbors for generations, making war between humans a distant memory.
A required, but audited, class in all high schools and officer candidate schools is "history and moral philosophy" which teaches the students, and reader, how the Terran Federation came to exist; as nobody has to actually pass it in high school, few students take it seriously there. Sometime in the 20th century, most nations were on the brink of anarchy from rampantly corrupt governments, unaccountable and irresponsible electorates, and widespread criminal youth gangs. A major and devastating world war breaks out, which collapses the already shaky states into chaos. Returning veterans organized local governments that grew and coalesced into the Terran Federation of today. The Terran Federation would later blame the failures of the 20th century on politicians and voters that were unconcerned with the well being of society at large, and the inability of society to install morality into its youth. The resulting Federation institutions are specifically designed to address that failure. Thus, many discussions in the book are concerned with discipline, responsibility, punishment, and morality.
Mobile infantry is an elite and high tech infantry unit that uses powered armor equipped with multi spectrum sensors, lasers, jump jets, flame throwers, missiles, tactical nuclear weapons, and various other bombs and personal weapons. Each mobile infantryman costs $500,000 (if that's 1959 dollars, that would be over $4 million today) to train and equip. Mobile infantry often employ fast hit-and-run tactics by drop podding from orbit and then doing as much damage as possible while skimming over buildings and terrain with their jump-packs toward a designated dust off point. Formations of mobile infantry typically have several miles between individual soldiers, using missile launchers or grenades to cover a wide swath as they go. Mobile infantry training is comprehensive and extremely difficult. Recruits train with a wide range of weapons from knifes and sticks to rifles, to lasers and tac-nukes.
Arachnids are arthropods with 8 legs and a social structure similar to ants or termites. They have a terrifying appearance. There are 4 casts: workers, warriors, brains, and queens. Workers are defenseless and incapable of fighting. Warriors are very tough fighters and are psychologically incapable of surrendering. Brains are the leaders of the species, while queens are apparently just there for reproduction, though nobody knows for sure since nobody has actually seen one. Most of their civilization is in underground tunnels that go deep enough that no one knows how big they are. The bugs of the book are particularly notable for being one of the first hive mind insectoid species in all fiction that actually uses technology; they are shown to build starships, equip their warriors with advanced beam weapons, and use some kind of weapon that can destroy Earth cities over interstellar distances. The latter is admittedly never given any detail or description, but it's probably fair to assume it's a little more advanced than throwing a fucking rock. They're also one of the only hive minds in fiction that actually has alliances with other species and takes prisoners.
The bugs are not the only Xenos in this setting, there is another species called the Skinnies who are very loosely described as humanoid, presumably generic gray aliens. They start out allied with the bugs, and then the Federation drops one platoon of SPESS MEHREENS armed with nukes on their planet to show how grimdark things will get if they continue to be friends with the bugs, and then the Skinnies stop being allied with the bugs... yet another vindication for Carl von Clausewitz.
The Bug War
The Terran Federation goes to war with the Arachnids after the bugs destroy the city of Buenos Aires. The Federation immediately invades the Arachnid home world, Klendathu, in retaliation but is summarily BTFO. For some time afterwards, humans fight on the losing side as they attempt to weaken the bugs with harassment. Over the next few years, several more cities and other installations in the sol system are destroyed, while the Federation destroys peripheral bug colonies, pacifies/converts bug allies, captures bug leaders, and learns more about bug tactics, society, and biology. Eventually, The Terran Federation gains the upper hand by employing new tactics and new chemical weapons. The book ends just as the Federation is massing forces for the 2nd invasion of Klendathu, in which the Federation appears to have a massive advantage, and presumably will win.
Remember that controversy we mentioned before? Well...
Starship Troopers was specifically written as a riposte against activists that were agitating against nuclear weapons testing during the late 50s, and was published only a few years before the Vietnam War became a major global crisis; thus, its reception and subsequent movie adaptation should be understood within that context. According to Heinlein, the book’s publication and awards “enraged” the activists, because it opposed much of what they advocated: the book is pro-military at a time when large parts of the university literati were violently opposed to all things related to the armed forces. As a science-fiction work, it has a high opinion of physical science, technology, logic, and mathematics at a time when many movements (e.g. hippies, anarcho-primitivists, Heideggarians, environmentalists) viewed technology and science as sources of evil in the world. In the 60s and 70s, the debate between communism and capitalism was still hotly contested, and several discussions in Starship Troopers place it solidly in the capitalist camp. It is also contemptuous of the social sciences, which often intersect with the previously mentioned factions. Simultaneously, trends in the field of literary criticism provided these factions with the epistemological tools necessary to misrepresent the book in order to do political damage to it.
The result was that Starship Troopers ended up dramatically misrepresented by its detractors, even if it in was half in good conscience; the Terran Federation was accused of advocating fascism, and though the 'worst' of this reputation would eventually pass, it illustrates well how perceptions of the work shifted with the changing times. Come the 1980s, Heinlein's idealization of the soldier and war, both heavily featured within the work, was far less compatible with the post-Vietnam counterculture of the era and the anti-war sentiments therein.
Among the more merited criticisms is the harshness of some Federation laws, which are enforced with corporal punishment. Such laws are few in number for civilians, and more numerous for active military, but regardless feel very abrasive to a modern audience. Heinlein was said to have based this future society off of Switzerland (which has a longstanding tradition of national service) but made voluntary, as he was not a fan of conscription; However, the glorification of the military's role in strengthening society and aforementioned strict law was often seen as taken to the point that some people accused Heinlein himself of being fascist. In truth, Heinlein was more sort of a proto-libertarian, to the point where several long stretches of dialogue in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress outright advocated anarchism, to say nothing of his later works. Of course such a system, in which some could vote and others could not with a high social tolerence for heavy handed punishment, naturally has plenty of room to be abused and twisted to fascist ends. Or at least more general Authoritarianism.
Eventually, it came time for Hollywood to do its inevitable movie-of-the-popular-book, and shooting began for a Starship Troopers movie.
The Skubbening II: Electric Boogaloo
Paul Verhoeven was the director for the then-upcoming movie, a Dutch refugee of Nazi occupation who almost died via collateral damage as a child when a bomb from an Allied Powers air strike landed in his backyard. Such an experience could only color his perceptions of war for the worse: Verhoeven only read the 1st few chapters of Heinlein's book, and he saw the Terrans as a bunch of Space Nazis (ironically so, since Heinlein served the US Navy in the 20's and the 40's), between their near-conscription level of military signups and the incredibly heavy use of propaganda enforcing "the individual's obligation to society". As such, he decided to crank the patriotic jingoism up to eleven and make the Terrans a bunch of hot-blooded dumbasses who, aside from a couple of sergeants, had no idea how to do anything more advanced than run at the enemy shooting guns. The Terran political officers were even dressed up in black Nazi trenchcoats, to really drive the point home how much Verhoeven hated Heinlein's book. The movie is a giant 2-hour "fuck you" disguised as a parody disguised as a sci-fi action movie.
...OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration: Verhoeven was already working on a movie at that time before he had even read Heinlein's book, a dark satire sci-fi film similar to Robocop, except instead of being about capitalism in Detroit, it was about fascism in space. One of the marketers at the production company noticed some similarities to the novel and decided that the movie would sell better as an adaptation of an influential novel than as a new property. So everything was renamed and several aspects rewritten to make the movie into a loose adaptation with as few budget increases as possible. The biggest "fuck you" was mostly Verhoeven agreeing to name his movie Starship Troopers; a lot of what was considered more direct "suck it Heinlein" moments were accidental.
Ultimately, you have people who didn't get the movie, people who thought the movie was great, people who said that the book was better, and people who didn't get the movie, thought it was great and made a 'sequel' with... flashlights, and all of these things are backed up by the intensely political nature of both the books and the parody. At least the third one (Starship Troopers 3: Marauder) featured real powered armor, for all of like five minutes.
So yeah... Lotta skub there.
Talk circulated in late 2016 of a possible remake of Starship Troopers, supposedly more faithful to the book. Remakes are the vogue in Hollywood in the 2010s, and it would not be difficult to make a more faithful adaptation than Verhoeven's, but "more faithful" doesn't mean "particularly faithful", and it's easy to talk about movies but much harder to make them. In short: we'll believe it when we see it.
In 2012, Director Shinji Aramaki (the genius behind much a mecha anime, the Gen-1 Transformer toys, and the co-owner of a CG-animation studio) gave us the CGI-animation movie Starship Troopers: Invasion. A Direct-to-DVD movie set after the events of "Starship Troopers 3: Marauder". Featuring a new cast, as well as return of Johnny Rico, now a eye-patch wearing Big Boss clone. It also gave use awesome power armour. The movie revolves around a incident aboard the Starship John A. Warden, and follows two squads of MI troopers as they attempt to stop the Bugs and save Earth. The movie is so much closer to what Heinlein wrote about and envisioned that you can practically feel the fanboying of the creators for the book. Other characters include Carman Ibanez and Carl Jenkins, although none of the original three protagonists from the first movie retain their actors as their voice.
That changed in the 2017 movie "Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars". Another CG-movie by Shinji Aramaki, and starring Casper Van Dien as the voice of Colonel Johnny Rico; the movie features Rico as the main character again (finally!). Improving on the depiction of power armour from the last film, it is set during a Bug outbreak on the surface of Mars, where Rico leads a team of barely-trained Martian MI recruits against an army of Bugs. The movie was released for the 20th anniversary of the original movie's release, and features the return of Dina Meyer as Dizzy Flores...I can feel your confusion already. Just watch the film. All will be revealed.
Yes, believe it or not, there is an anime of Starship Troopers. Supposedly, it the most "faithful," adaptation so far, although this is mainly due to it being based off of the Japanese edition of the novel, so it's honestly not wrong... While not 100% faithful, it comes pretty close, and has the benefit of coming well before the Vehoeven movie and the associated controversies. The biggest differences are:
- The lack of emphasis on the difference between civilians and citizens.
- The aliens are more blob-like rather than insectoid.
- The story is more linear as it follows Rico from high school until his post-deployment.
- Several characters are dropped or never seen again.
The verdict of whether or not it's any good is up to you.
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles
A 1999-2000 CGI cartoon adaptation of the movie. The computer animation looks its age, but the show otherwise combines the better elements from the book (e.g. the aliens and small-squad focus that the movie left out) and the movie (e.g. a slightly cynical take on the Federation, without Heinlein's lectures or Verhoeven's over-the-top satire). It was cool, but it was also plagued by budget and production troubles. The series progressed from Pluto, through the galaxy, to the Bugs' homeworld of Klendathu, and then the Feds got word that the Bug Queen escaped and is invading Earth.
And then production stopped, with the last four episodes not produced.
Commentary from the production staff indicates that the final episodes would have featured the Queen's final attack destroying SICON headquarters and turning it into a volcano, followed by a Federation counter-attack themed after Dante's Inferno, culminating in a final showdown between one of the main-character squad members vs. the Queen herself, but sadly we'll never get to see it. The material leading up to it is still worth watching, though!
There have been a few video games, none outstanding, but Avalon Hill made a two-player board game way back in 1976 -- in fact, a review of it was included in the very first June-July 1977 issue of White Dwarf. One player takes the role of the Arachnids and draws up a hidden map of where the bugs are hiding and where their tunnels run, and then the human player tries to root them out. It was re-released following the movie.
Mongoose Publishing produced a d20 System RPG and a miniatures game from 2005-2008. There were plans to port the RPG to the Traveller system and produce a second edition of the miniatures game, but they no longer have the license.
Whatever its flaws, the Paul Verhoeven movie was still one of the last big-budget science fiction war movies done before the advent of full CGI battle sequences (which it helped pioneer with the bugs). Outfitting a small army of extras for the action scenes required a large quantity of costumes and props, which would continue to be recycled in television and movies for the next decade.
- A free audiobook of Starship Troopers on YouTube.
- Klendathu Drop, from the first movie's soundtrack, and one of the features of the movie that everyone agrees is awesome. Very useful in Deathwatch and Only War games.
- This article suggests that the movie may have been a parable for the War on Terror before the war began.