Thursday, November 30, 2006

Starship Troopers, Inc.

Contrarian readings of literary classics--whether Hemingway or RA Heinlein--often may be more informative, or, at the very least, more entertaining than the usual hagiographic type of analysis common to the lit. professor. The literary contrarian, at least one of a skeptical rather than dogmatic nature, generally begins with the realization, as did that great contrarian Bertrand Russell, that literature is never to be mistaken for Truth itself, whether that flavor of Truth be historical, scientific, or logical; whatever "Hamlet" is, neither the play nor the character has the same, as they say, ontological status in reality as the facts pertaining to the life of a Nero or a Napoleon.

Since literature--specifically fiction--does not really point at facts as say a history --or biology-- text does, one might ask what precisely is a literary narrative. Of course many varied answers might be given: it's an art-form, akin to say a musical composition, with metaphors intended to demonstrate something about human existence, or the narrative suggests something about psychology, or it’s a tale about Oppression, or in the case of science fiction, the narrative concerns technology, and perhaps the political consequences of applied technology. Literary types indeed specialize in extracting codes from literary texts: whether they are obvious or not, and with a writer such as Robert Heinlein, the code seems fairly detectable--though that is not necessarily a fault in a writer.

Heinlein's fictional code is not so innovative; RAH himself admitted he wrote for money (he was, granted, fairly qualified to write on scientific topics, given his experience in the Navy, and his studies in mathematics--for a semester or two, at least--at UCLA). One might term the
Heinleinian code militaristic-stoical, but there is more to it than that--a valuing of science
and mathematics, along with the Semper Fidelis trumpet blast: imagine a Marcus
Aurelius who spins partial differentials, and also pilots spacecraft, and leads a platoon against "The Bugs." (Lucas's Hans Solo a rather Heinleinian sort of icon as well, tho' perhaps a bit too capricious compared to the iron-willed Heinleinian officer).

Starship Troopers, both the novel and the film adaptation, reveals much of the Heinleinian code (tho' one might grant RAH softened a bit later, with say Time Enough for Love--yet RAH's anti-pacifist address to the cadets in Annapolis in '73, as well as comments in favor of the US
presence in the Vietnam War and in support of Reagan’s Star Wars dreams might indicate otherwise). ST features a fairly complicated if somewhat pulpish plot; the movie sort of ramped up the original pulp vision (some might say improved upon it). Apart from the narrative details, the pronouncements of one-armed Lieutenant Colonel Jean V. Dubois are often read as Heinlein himself speaking. Dubois is the protagonist Johnny Rico's high school instructor in History and Moral Philosophy. Indeed, compared to some action-packed sci-fi, the novel ST features quite a bit of dialogue concerning moral and political themes, and the shortcomings of democracy; and there are some who have interpreted Starship Troopers as somewhat fascistic, which is certainly not an impossible reading. Like many conservative writers attacking democracy, Dubois-Heinlein insists on the necessity of individual sacrifice--and the masses are generally held to be of quite less importance than the heroic officer-scientist. The novel--though it's been some years since last perusal--though hardly reaches a Mein Kampf level of exterminator prayer: Rico himself is a Filipino--there is a somewhat Americanist-like suggestion of meritocracy; that is, if Johnny Rico himself masters those partial derivatives and his flight training, as well as, presumably, his Latin Gradus Ad Parnassum via Marcus Aurelius, he too will join the elite. But the Terran Federation of ST is a police state of sorts, or at least a society ruled by the military: only those citizens willing to serve their society by enlisting for two years of Federal Service are really "free."

This sort of Grunt-worship is a common enough theme in sci-fi and popular culture: the Soldier as Everyman--and the non-soldier as schlemiel, more or less. For Heinlein the soldier of course is not merely a grunt (as he is say for most Hollywood war epics, or say Hemingway's stories--tho' Krebs in Soldier’s Home is a fairly bright if shell-shocked chap); Grunt is a
quantum physicist, expert pilot AND soldier: a yankee Uebermensch of
sorts--and RAH's one-time pal and partner in El Lay diablerie, L-Ron, Big Daddy of Scientology, also not far from that "Social Darwinism with integrals" perspective.

The popular success of both RAH's novel and the film adaptation years
later should not surprise us. (there are, of course, more than a few Heinlein fans who have objected to Verhoeven's Starship Troopers Movie ) The code appeals to most Americans--old or young; and the film version demonstrates that the cast can be made more multicultural and sexxay (perhaps there are others who might agree the high point of the flick was Denise Richards showing her tits), and the code remains intact--and of perennial interest and marketability.

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