Responses to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

John Scalzi recently wrote a post for Tor.com about Starship Troopers the film, listing several reasons for watching it. The film is ostensibly based on Heinlein’s book of the same name, which, amongst other things, is often credited as creating the military science fiction genre.

My own reason for watching it, a couple years ago (or, rather, re-watching it), came from this AV Club post, which told me a lot about director Verhoeven and his intentions with the film I hadn’t picked up on the first time through. On the surface, it’s a crappy, brainless action movie. A little deeper, it turns out to be incredibly satirical, both anti-war and an intentional argument against the very ideas Heinlein put forth in the film’s source material.

Some might suggest he misrepresents Heinlein’s ideas in responding to them. For example, he’s clearly stated his belief that Heinlein’s imagined society was fascist, but this isn’t really a fair reading. Still, I’m of the school “everyone should read Heinlein, but never stop arguing with him”. So I appreciate the effort to refute him, even if Verhoeven does a sloppy job of it.

And I did get something out of re-watching the movie with a more critical eye; I even went back and watched Robocop for the same reason. But when it comes right down to it, I didn’t enjoy either one. They may only be pretending to be crappy, brainless movies — hiding deeper messages just below the surface — but really, what’s the difference between pretending to be and actually being crappy?

For that matter, the messages were pretty vague and simplistic. They’re anti-fascist, and? Can you get a little more specific with that? In the end, I suspect there’s only so much you can do with satire compared to a more detailed argument in a compelling story. That’s why Brave New World can’t live up to 1984. The former is satire at the expense of being real literature.

For that matter, I don’t need Verhoeven’s to refute Heinlein. It’s been done. The Forever War was written maybe 15 years after Starship Troopers, and is a clear, politically-opposite response, written by a veteran just returned from Vietnam, no less. Joe Haldeman had both the writing and military creds to challenge Heinlein, and in so doing may have exceeded his work.

In fact, even Verhoeven’s cheerleader, Scalzi himself, has done this. Old Man’s War is clearly aware of Heinlein’s work, challenges it, and is an excellent novel in its own right. Scalzi should just read his own book next time he feels the urge to watch Verhoeven’s film.

I guess the moral of the story (as I take it) is that even when something is arguably important as part of a body of critically relevant work, it may have few artistic merits of its own.

Leave a Reply