Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science fiction novel Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, but nonetheless elicits controversy and it is easy to see why. On some levels there is very little to this slim book–few rounded characters, almost no plot—and can be seen as a jingoistic pro-military piece of ideologically-infused drivel. On another, there are sentiments about the world and how bootcamp changes a person.

Juan (Johnnie) Rico comes from a wealthy family and his father has determined his life: Harvard business school and then join his company. They don’t get to vote, of course, because that can only happen through military service, but they have money and that is what matters. Then, right after high school, Juan joins the military while trying to show off for a girl. She has the aptitude and intelligence to be a pilot and another friend has the chops to be an engineer. Johnnie is only cut out for the Mobile Infantry—-a grunt in a highly-advanced suit who drops from space sows destruction.

Most of the novel follows Juan’s travails through first bootcamp and early missions, and then officer training school. The narrative unfolds from his point of view, and between grueling exercises the characters touch upon issues of punishment, discipline, responsibility, and violence, but is not uniformly positive or negative on any one position except perhaps on the necessity of citizenship being a right that needs to be earned. It represents issues as genuine problems and for war as an opportunity to make people into the best versions of themselves. And yet Juan is a shining example of this phenomenon, many other characters standing in stark contrast.

I don’t have too many specific observations about this book, in part because I finished it more than a week ago, but while I did appreciate reading it, it did not live up to some of the more well-rounded science fiction I have recently read. Starship Troopers just came across as flatter and more like a philosophical dialogue than a story. However, I cannot help but wonder if some of the controversy about the militarism Heinlein infused in the story comes not from the context of its initial publication, but from the experience of Vietnam in the next decade. In particular, one of the plot hooks later in the story comes from a sudden, forced mobilization of the human race to fight off aliens and how Juan’s father comes to be proud of his son rather than becoming resentful.


I fell a bit behind on reviews, so I’ll soon be posting discussions of Naguib Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail, a story about the downward spiral of a fired politician told through three relationships, and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history that was quite good. This afternoon I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, the ninth Aubrey-Maturin novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. they blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. the entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary.

Margaret Atwood’s books have been on my radar for some time and I just kept putting off reading one. This was a mistake.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an eerily familiar, dystopic Boston. After waves of natural disasters and toxic spills caused upheaval through the United States by making resources scarce and child births scarcer, a group of biblical fundamentalists enacted a coup, creating a new country called Gilead.

Gilead is a rigidly hierarchical state, with strict separation of the genders. Men (Commanders, Guardians, Angels) are soldiers and professionals. Women primarily serve in household roles, such as wives, cleaning and cooking (Marthas), as well as overseeing other women (Aunts). Only Aunts are allowed to read any longer, and women are not allowed to hold jobs or have money. The most prized women, though, are those capable of having children. Some wives are capable having kids, but the elite men who have no children are allotted, based on biblical precedent, handmaids, whose entire purpose is that of surrogate womb—-so fully that the fertility ritual involves symbolically linking with the wife once a month while being visited by the head of household. If she fails to become pregnant, she will be transferred to another home; if she passes childbearing age, she will become an and transferred to a job like sweeping toxins.

The story is told in choppy and furtive sentences from the point of view of a woman known for her current station as Offred (named so for the man she’s attached to). She had a husband and a child, once, but they were captured while trying to escape to Canada and she was taken to the Red Center, a place for training the first generation of Handmaids. After graduating she is assigned.

One detaches oneself. one describes…

The tension in The Handmaid’s Tale emerges from the treatment of the new reality—the killings, the subjugation of women being treated as a privilege, the deprivation—as completely normal being juxtaposed with memories of freedom and choice from the past life.

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

Some of the characters take pleasure in their positions of power or receive enough benefits that they are not interested in challenging the status quo, but others, particularly the younger generations that don’t remember what it was like before, who are true believers.

Despite being published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale holds up exceptionally well, the difficulty of reading at times being entirely by design. The only point that seemed a bit dated was the technology, but, by and large, the themes (totalitarianism, militarism, control of a woman’s body) are still painfully relevant.

I loved this book and the highest praise I can give is that I eagerly await when I get to read another of Atwood’s novels.


Next up, I am currently reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which, thus far, is an engrossing story that doesn’t quite rise to the level of some other science fiction I have read recently.

The Ionian Mission – Patrick O’Brian

Also known as Volume 8 of the Continuing Adventures of Aubrey and Maturin.

Captain Aubrey must once again fly from home life in order to escape creditors and therefore accepts the first commission available, on a ship he does not like, to a task he finds dull, and under a senior officer with a grudge. Circumstances  during the dull blockade force a transfer, followed by a mission to the Ottoman Empire that will call for both diplomatic and naval skill.

Reviewing installments in this long-running series is difficult. I like our core characters–bold and capable Jack Aubrey and the circumspect and intelligent Stephen Maturin–and particularly appreciate O’Brian’s attention to detail. This attention was all the more necessary in this book because there is so little action to drive the story. But this is the point, not a flaw. Blockade is boring.

Several features of O’Brian’s style stood out in The Ionian Mission . First, and probably in an accurate representation of the historical context, Aubrey’s successful promotion puts him in a position to be away from fighting. Commanding a large ship is about bureaucratic maneuvers, while the smaller vessels had the liberty to seek or stumble into action. It is no surprise then that O’Brian creates a transition back to Aubrey’s beloved HMS Surprise for  the eponymous Ionian Mission. Second, there are a few set pieces in each book, including the battle scene, the gunnery training montage, and the creditors on land. No two are exactly alike, but while the plots do differ, one of the tricks O’Brian uses to vary the books almost as much is to change the starting and concluding points. In this case there is technically no resolution, but cuts away immediately after the climax. The result is that the book is a genuinely serialized product.

The Ionian Mission is a solid installment in an enjoyable historical fiction series, but I would certainly recommend starting a the beginning.


Next up, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s deeply disconcerting dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and will probably dive into Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers later this weekend.