Starship Troopers

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The movie gets it completely wrong. But seriously, read the book. Then see the movie.

"A suit isn't a space suit - although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor - although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are... 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."

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 required reading lists of 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 powered 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 invented many of the common elements we see science fiction over the last 60 years -- the Alien films, Warhammer 40,000, Starcraft, and essentially all military science-fiction since the 1950's owe a lot to Mr. Heinlein. For example, Starship Troopers is credited with the invention of power armor, hive mind bug races, and drop pods.

The Book[edit]

What many people who haven't read the book might be surprised to learn, particularly if they watched the movie first, 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 (you might even find it downright boring if action-adventure is specifically what you were looking for). The war with the bugs simply serves as the backdrop to the book's plot, the 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.

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 perform 2 or more years of federal service. Federal service can be anything from space janitor, to terraformer, to desk jockey, to starship pilot, to 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 would use their political power for personal gain or for the gain of a faction. 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 to exercise the violence of the state. Thus, they argue, 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 class in all high schools (though nobody has to actually pass it in high school, so few take it seriously) and officer candidate schools is "history and moral philosophy" which teaches the students, and reader, how the Terran Federation came to exist. Sometime in the 20th century, many nations were on the brink of anarchy from criminal gangs. A major and devastating war breaks out between the "Chinese Hegemony" and a European / North American alliance. The war collapses the already shaky states into anarchy. 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 the inability of society to install morality into its youth, and many discussions in the books are concerned with discipline, 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.

The Terran Federation goes to war with a race of spider-like aliens called "Arachnids" after they destroy the city of Buenos Aires (and go on to destroy several more Earth cities as the conflict goes on). Arachnids are arthropods with 8 legs and a social structure similar to ants or termites. They have a terrifying appearance. There are 3 casts: workers, warriors, and brains. 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. 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 only hive mind insectoid species in all fiction that actually uses technology, 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.

After the destruction of Buenos Aires, The Federation immediately invades the arachnid home world, Klendathu, and is 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 before the 2nd invasion of Klendathu, in which the Federation appears to have a massive advantage, and presumably will win.

The Movie[edit]

Main article: Skub

So come the 1980s, Heinlein's idealization of the soldier is less compatible with the post-Vietnam counterculture (and the hippies therein). Heinlein said he 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 (he also stated the Bugs' hivemind was there because one of the book's themes was to critique communism). However the glorification of the military's role in society and the use of war to strengthen the nation (along with common corporal punishment) means that the Terran Federation often comes off as being somewhat fascist to a modern audience, to the point that some people accused Heinlein himself of being fascist. Heinlein was not a Facsict but rather a sort of a proto-libertarian (to the point where The Moon is a Harsh Mistress outright advocated anarchism), though such a set up in which some could vote and others could not naturally has plenty of room for abuse. This is made all the more noticeable by the publication of Ender's Game, which is another popular science fiction novel which in the broad strokes has a lot of similarities to Starship Troopers but with notable twists (most notably the bugs invaded earth because they had no idea that non hive-minded creatures could be anything more than animals and relent when they find out their mistake, the battle-school is run by lying manipulating bastards who are willing to physiologically break and even kill children to forge perfect officers and the notion of committing genocide of an entire species is presented in a negative light) did not help with this.

Eventually, it came time for Hollywood to do its inevitable movie-of-the-popular-book, and shooting began for a Starship Troopers movie. The above paragraph of skub might have been quietly swept under the rug were it not for one thing: the director, Paul Verhoeven, was a Dutch refugee of Nazi occupation and almost died via collateral damage as a child when a bomb from an Allied Powers air strike landed in his backyard.

Verhoeven only read the 1st few chapters of Heinlein's book, and he saw the Terrans as a bunch of Space Nazis (ironically, 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 Verhooven agreeing to name his movie Starship Troopers, as a lot of the 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.

The Remake?[edit]

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.

Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles[edit]

Main article: Approved Television

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.

External Links[edit]

  • 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.