Starship Troopers is an award-winning military science fiction novel that was written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1959. A political and subsequently controversial book for its time, it was nevertheless an extremely successful piece of work and would ultimately prove itself to be extremely influential on the genre at large.

The plot is simple. Far into the future, mankind is engaged in interstellar war with an arachnid-like species referred to only as “the Bugs”. With their advanced weaponry and powered exoskeleton suits, protagonist Johnnie Rico and the rest of his fellow Mobile Infantry, recount their experiences becoming capsule troopers amidst a future world where federal service is mandatory for becoming an integral member of society.

A straightforward and yet exciting premise for any story, Starship Troopers has been adapted many times over the years and has thus spawned numerous movies, comics, games and even essays in the process. I like Starship Troopers as a franchise. I find the property can be tremendously intelligent (if done right) and has created one of those settings that can be enjoyed on many different levels.

The first edition of Starship Troopers.

The first edition of Starship Troopers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the original novel, which emerges as a relatively short but gripping tale of one man coming to terms with fighting for his country. Heinlein was never coy concerning his right-wing political beliefs though and there will be many people who struggle to read the novel as a result. The author was frequently condemned and critically ripped to pieces over it; perhaps the potent element that would guarantee its relative infamy in the years since its first printing.

In the novel, it’s made clear that only those who have earned citizenship may guide the future of society. Citizenship is earned primarily through federal service and it’s stated that a person’s full sense of social responsibility is only truly appreciated when that person suffers through the hardships and self-sacrifice of war.

In fact, many of the book’s passages are written as if they were intended for a political essay more than a work of fiction, most notably the rather infamous line:

“Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”

Violence is a hot topic throughout the book, whether it’s talk of killing, how to kill, or in the vivid descriptions of boot camp recruits passing out after witnessing one of their number being brutally whipped as public punishment.

Contrary to its adaptions though, Heinlein’s novel is mainly a political piece with only one brief chapter of the book containing battlefield action. The bulk of the novel is spent at Camp Arther Currie where we follow Johnnie Rico on his military journey from lowly recruit to the more responsible officer and squad commander that he eventually molds into.

I read the novel years after seeing the Hollywood adaption multiple times, so at first I fully expected the lack of action to be a frustration that might affect my enjoyment of Heinlein’s original vision. Surprisingly, this didn’t turn out to be the case as I found something different in the book that grew my appreciation for the property even more.

The sentiments found in Heinlein’s work are more than a bit radical, but I still appreciate the unadulterated and entertaining manner in which it’s all presented. Some will view Starship Troopers as nothing more than a glorified recruitment poster and perhaps in some ways that’s actually true, but it never compromises on being a compelling story.

Many of the plot details in the book are based on Heinlein’s own experience in the U.S. Navy and for better or worse, Johnnie Rico’s division feels breathlessly hard-hitting and authentic because of it. Whether the somewhat abrupt ending to the book leaves you satisfied, puzzled or downright outraged though, it’s difficult to deny that Starship Troopers is a novel that has given critics much to debate as the years have gone by.

In terms of cultural influence, you can find numerous nods to its setting, phrases and power-armoured troopers in modern media including the Alien films, the Halo video games, and even the Mobile Suit Gundam television series. When most people hear the name, they’re probably going to think of the 1997 film adaptation directed by Paul Verhoevan.

The film adaption lost the 1997 Oscar for Best Visual Effects to Titanic... Yeah.

The film adaption lost the 1997 Oscar for Best Visual Effects to Titanic… Yeah.

Aside from sharing a few character names and plot details, Starship Troopers the movie is idealistically opposed to the novel because of how profoundly its director (Paul Verhoevan) and scriptwriter (Ed Neumeier) disagreed with Heinlein’s right-wing beliefs. Whereas the novel posits “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as an unrealistic dream of democracy, the movie instead seeks to highlight the flagrant misuse of (primarily American) power and the fetishization of the military.

The film holds an almost unique distinction for being just as controversial as the book it’s based on despite not even sharing the very elements that made it controversial in the first place! Starship Troopers may be one of the most misunderstood Hollywood films that I’ve ever seen, as it’s often decried as a mindless cinematic shoot ’em up full of excessive violence and very little plot.

The chance of such harsh criticism was high because, like Verhoevan’s RoboCop (also written by Neumeier), the Starship Troopers movie is written as a risqué satire. The movie is completely different from the novel as it attacks fascism with its over-the-top humour and violence. The script is dripping with irony and each scene is packed with hyperbolic imagery and mock propaganda to clue you into the ridicule it makes of right wing politics.

Consider the hilarious line spoken by Sky Marshal Dienes as he addresses the masses in a funny scene:

“We must meet this threat with our courage, our valor, indeed with our very lives to ensure that human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy now and always!”

Thousands of rounds of ammunition were expended during the first film's creation.

Thousands of rounds of ammunition were expended during the first film’s creation.

Verhoevan, who experienced World War II firsthand as a child, rarely shies away from Nazi imagery in his films either. Here he presents his shots of lined-up MI troopers and the Nazi-esque SICON logo alongside more overt references like the SS uniforms worn by the film’s military strategists.

Other humourous scenes and propaganda shorts include gleeful announcements of public executions, farcical debates (I find the idea of a bug that thinks, offensive!”), and footage of troopers handing out bullets to small children at a school meet and greet.

The characters themselves are purposefully made to look very similar. The young cast all have radiant hair and beautiful blue eyes in an alternate vision of what might have happened if WWII went the opposite way. It also becomes clear about half way through the film that the humans are the aggressors in their war with the dehumanized “Bugs”. It was humanity who encroached on the Arachnid’s territory and when the they fire a plasma-fueled asteroid at Earth in retaliation, there’s two-faced outrage from the human populace.

The ending is mildly cathartic and disappointing in the same measure. The only victory at the end of all of this mayhem is that the enemy has been made to feel “afraid” (which prompts massive cheers at the film’s climax) and more sophisticated ways of continuing the slaughter are sure to follow.

“And of course, the movie is about “Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.” That was clear from the beginning. Not that I had in mind that this would become kind of a reality in the years that followed Clinton. That would have been really prophetic. [Screenwriter Ed Neumeier and I] were just tapping things that we saw at that time, and then extrapolated, unfortunately into a direction that life took.” – Paul Verhoevan

Starship Troopers is an intelligent satire at its core and one with elements so subtle that you might have to watch it a few times to appreciate why it’s so good. What makes it even better is that you don’t even need to buy into the satire or the hidden meanings in order to enjoy it. There are spectacular visual effects and battle scenes to satisfy any action film fan; if that’s all you want from Starship Troopers, then it’s more than happy to entertain you on that level.

A crippling shame then how the video game space has largely failed to utilize the license in any meaningful way. In a previous article I wrote about the undiscovered potential behind a good game based on the franchise.

The Starship Troopers Role-Playing Game published in 2005 by Mongoose is a much better attempt at bringing the property to gaming spaces, as it combines themes from the novel, film, and even the CGI TV series to create its own faithful spin on the setting. Here the d20 game engine recreates the vicious nature of tactical warfare by sharply limiting player health points and making combat feel truly tense and dangerous as a result.

The comics start off well, but the quality of the storylines and artwork quickly peters out.

The comics start off well, but the quality of the storylines and artwork quickly peters out.

There have also been several comic books published under the Dark Horse label. There are some decent stories told here both on and off the battlefield, but lacklustre artwork and cameo-heavy stories characterized much of the publication’s run and it never really stood out as anything special.

Starship Troopers is a property that’s reinventing itself as the years go by. Whilst the novel itself has remained fairly distant and unsullied, the movie has received two low budget and brutally-awful sequels in Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, and a mediocre CGI/anime offering from Shinji Aramaki titled Starship Troopers: Invasion.

From the irresistible premise of galactic war to the greater themes of politics and leadership, the Starship Troopers franchise is certainly more accepted today than it was in years past, but for all the controversy, this is still one of those properties that’s difficult to keep down for long.

But then again, who wants to live forever?