So I picked up a copy of Starship Troopers a while back and I’m most the way through reading it.
My SF-reading pals typically divide into two groups: ‘Read Troopers, it’s a classic’ and ‘keep well clear of its fascist ass’. Way I see it, anything that divisive earns at least a looksie.
Generally speaking, I find Heinlein plain weird. Stranger In A Strange Land, for instance, has characters die and become angels, white-robed, winged freakin’ angels shooting the shit and kicking back on clouds. In a science fiction. Okay, angels in an SF novel isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but with any other author it would be the focus of the book or near-as-damn. Not our Rob. He just throws out an angel scene then fucks off, never to really raise this theological bombshell again. I still squint when I sit down and think about it years later. Why do it? Why? How did he plonk himself in front of his Carrington 9000, dream up this literary image and not think it utterly jarring? I mean, there’s not even a sense of awe to it, it’s like a nativity play, they’ve practically got cardboard wings and wire halos, the clouds are cotton candy, the, the…
Let it go, James.
Starship Troopers isn’t as weird, but its pounding its famous power armour along a most singular trench. It’s certainly not the book I thought it’d be, not the one people who champion it remember it as being. They mainly talked about the power armour.
The strangest element is the almost complete lack of camaraderie, of squad spirit, despite the text’s many claims otherwise. The one thing I presumed about military SF (a genre I’m trying to get familiar with) at the squad level would be a bunch of people thrown into a tight unit, not initially getting on, a few dying, but eventually becoming a family of sorts. Starship, being a genre template, would have Rico the protagonist, of course but also Kenny and Binkie and T-Bone and Condiments Ackroyd (Condiments’ arc bringing a manly tear to my eye and yet, and yet a smile…). I was looking forward to all that.
But there’s none of these people. There’s no squad, not in any tangible sense. Yes, there’s other troopers, naturally, but they turn up for a couple of paragraphs, act out some point Heinlein wishes to make and then evaporate, to be mentioned as dead a couple of chapters later. Rico signs up with his old school pal Carl and you think ‘great, let’s see how these two get on together in the hot forge of war’, but you never get that. Carl goes somewhere else once he’s served his purpose convincing Rico to enlist. A hundred pages later we find he’s dead and Rico reacts like his third favourite band have released a duff album.
Some recruit who’s name I can’t even remember get’s the lash for hitting his sergeant. There’s zero character-driven emotional stakes because Heinlein’s barely mentioned the guy before. In effect, the brutal lashing is not something that happens to a character, the character is something that permits the brutal lashing. Because Heinleins wishes to use the chapter to ask: ‘Lashing: necessary or most necessary thing ever?’ It’s a strangely unpopulated book, rich with empty, nebulous barracks and weaponised ghosts.
The only real characters are Rico and the older men who dominate Rico. That’s the heart of Starship Troopers. Hell, it’s basically the dedication:
To ‘Sarge’ Arthur George Smith- Soldier, Citizen, Scientist- and to all sergeants anywhere who have laboured to make men out of boys
Rico’s father, his drill sergeant, the company captain: all are faces of the same paternal alpha male urge, vocally reluctant to punish but always committed to it for some greater good (Rico’s father is a sort of exception that proves the rule. A soft civilian, he fails to punish his son adequately in his formative years and only finds redemption by joining the Mobile Infantry himself, an act of reverse castration).
Drill sergeant Zim is an idealised father figure. In a sense he is the book, or at least the entirety of the middle act, for SST is less about a future war and more about a training camp. The second act of the book is a genuine slog with the promise of an actual bug war somewhere beyond the horizon. Indeed, the bug war is a side issue and is often dealt with perfunctorily, as if Heinlein is contractually obliged to portray those scenes. His heart is in middle age men berating people.
Which brings me to the title of this blog post. Starship is an intensely homoerotic read, of an unconscious, sadomasochistic and joyless kind. That’s stultifyingly obvious to me though when I googled ‘Starship Troopers homoerotic’ I got almost nothing relevant (Actually I got a blog post talking about Trooper’s perceived fascism, written by an, er, actual fascist). Maybe that’s not all that surprising: anyone (gay or otherwise) who might notice would be the sort of people who don’t read this stuff and anyone actually looking for homosexual BDSM erotica has a wealth of better choices.
We get ‘reluctant’ lashings both verbal and physical, not to mention strange monologues on the necessity of punitive action. Our own civilisation, we are told through the lens of this future history, collapsed because not enough street-tough youths were corporally punished:
“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to the individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand – that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their “rights”.
Society imploded in Mad Max due to a shortage of oil, in STT it’s because hordes of working class twinks didn’t get spanked. Would you believe me if I told you this lecture grinds on for eight pages? Seriously.
And yet, once an individual acquiesces to this world of hyper-masculine dom-or-be-dommed a peculiar tenderness creeps in, even a flirtatiousness. After a trial that leads to a lashing sentence (what else?), Rico overhears Captain Frenkell and Sergeant Zim:
“Who was the worst unspanked young cub in your section?”
“Mmm…” Zim answered slowly. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say you were the worst, Captain.”
“You wouldn’t eh? …I hated your guts, ‘Corporal’ Zim.”
Zim sounded surprised, and a little hurt. “You did captain? I didn’t hate you- I rather liked you…”
They finish their meeting with the Captain suggesting some downtime physical contact:
“If you’re not too busy this evening, why don’t you bring your soft shoes and your pads over to officers’ row and we’ll go waltzing Matilda? (…) If you and I work up a good sweat and swap a few bumps, maybe we’ll be able to sleep tonight despite all of mother’s little darlings.”
The overall result is a peculiar atmosphere, part stoic, part saccharine. Like John Wayne crooning the lyrics of I Will Always Love You.
People say SST approvingly depicts a fascist society (including fascists, it seems) but I think that’s wrong and a little bit lazy. It doesn’t even depict a totalitarian society. Totalitarianism implies an attempted control of every aspect of everyone’s lives. But, in this future, if you’re not part of the establishment’s sweaty locker room cult it really doesn’t care what you think. In fact it’ll sneer at the very thought of you and your society-maintaining job and the tax dollars it generates. Bloody loser.
A better comparison than 20th century fascism, of course, would be ancient Sparta, but a Sparta where all the helots drive affordable automobiles and drink martinis come sundown. Sure, they cannot vote, but at least they can take comfort in the fact their masters are getting whipped and self-righteously lectured to.
I wonder how much Heinlein researched Sparta before writing this book. Quite a bit I’d imagine given the society he depicts; save the Masai there’s few other real-world cultures SST‘s Earth resembles. Is it merely coincidence, for example, that Rico’s female love interest, Carmen, has a shaved head and wears male-associated clothes (e.g., a millitary uniform) when they kiss for the first time? Spartan maidens would shave their heads and dress as a boy before their wedding night so as to acclimatise their homonormative husbands. Heinlein couldn’t have absorbed all the things he admires about Sparta without encountering the elements one assumes he’d rather eschew. I can’t believe his homoerotic sadomasochism is entirely 100% subconscious (as crassly amusing as it may be to believe so).
Sooner or later everyone has to analyse the same-sex attraction within their own psyche, whatever their place on the spectrum, and Heinlein strikes me as a writer who keenly used fiction writing in order to understand himself. Famously, he served in the US navy but never saw action (a fact oft mentioned by his decriers, which raises the question if he had shot a few people would SST‘s hyper-millitarism be any less repugnant in their eyes?) and the male dominance hierarchy of his camp training clearly had a lifelong effect.
I can’t help but find this novel the self-analysis of a mostly heterosexual man with a deep emotional attachment to his barrack room years, so much so he developed sexual feelings for the older men who ruled his life. Nothing wrong with that, o’ course, but for a man like Heinlein in his own time it must have been pretty difficult. The bug war and the power armour and Clausewitz-esque martial lectures often feel like confetti, an icing over a cake he finds shameful (Mmm… shamecake). Blog post psychoanalysis on my part, of course, but if I’m anywhere near right then Heinlein was a pretty brave writer to wrestle with these perceived dragons in himself.
If you’ve read this far then I imagine a): you’re in an elite club, and b): believe I’m out to give R.A.H a low-fruit critical drubbing.
But actually, darn it, I quite like the guy. Sorta. I mean… he’s rarely less than interesting, old Rob. He’s happy to put it out there, you know? Let his thoughts all hang out across the page. Too many modern SF authors are all like ‘Ooh, what’ll everyone think of me? Ooh, whatever will Twitter say? Ooh, should I have a second bowl of muesli? Is that wrong? Is it?’
Not Robert. He just strides into the summer barbecue of your personal reading experience and dumps a shaved Alsatian carcass on your grill. You glare at him incredulously but his pencil-moustached face is blank above his double-breasted suit and you start to wonder if it’s you who’s out of line.
Yeah, I kinda admire that. I admire Robert Heinlein’s shaved alsatians.