« i'm alive! | Main | The End of the World »

Starship Troopers and Fascism

A few of you probably know that I'm looking forward to the release of Mongoose Publishing's Starship Troopers Roleplaying Game in a month or so. As much as I've been digging all these indie games that I've purchased lately, the idea of playing in or running a campaign in the setting of the Roughnecks TV series is highly appealing. (Even if we have no one to play it with just yet.)

There's a thread over on the RPGnet forum talking about the game's upcoming release and naturally, there's some discussion over the three pre-existing iterations of the theme: the original novel by Robert A. Heinlein, the blockbuster movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and its straight-to-DVD sequel, and the Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles computer-animated series.

In that thread, a gent by the name of Participant-Observer wrote:

    I wouldn't say that I enjoyed the movie more than the book, but I certainly enjoyed it. And, frankly, Verhoeven and Neumeier were recognizably sending up the fascist state, whereas ... well, I've always thought that Heinlein might've thought it was a good idea.

    [NB. Long time since I've read the book]

Having read the book fairly recently, I felt the need to respond. I thought I'd put the response up here as, perhaps, a general thinking-checking exercise:

    Fair enough, PO. On first read-through, it does rather seem that way; at least, it did to me.

    But what I realised on subsequent read-throughs (admittedly, aided by a couple of notes in Heinlein's later Expanded Universe collection) was that, while military service is federal service, federal service is not necessarily military service. The Federation has a long list of dirty-jobs-that-need-to-be-done-for-the-better-good, and not all are military or even related to it. Because the novel's title is what it's about, it doesn't dwell on the alternatives too much, but they are there.

[Added in Edit:] Actually, there's an essay written on this subject here, and on a quick re-read I can't find anything that contradicts its assertions on what the book actually says or does not say about Federal Service.

    Admittedly, the volunteer doesn't get a choice - it is very much a case of "we send you where you're needed to do what our tests say you're best at, and if it's one of your preferences, fine for you".

    (I've always wondered what it was about the Merchant Marine that meant it wasn't classed as federal service, but that my be simply because I don't know enough about it.)

    Of course, I didn't really know what fascism meant, but I had a quick look at Wikipedia, and the society Heinlein created for the novel seems to meet only one of their basic criteria - exalting the nation, to a certain extent, above the individual - and even then, not quite.

    Going by the basic bullet-points in the Wikipedia entry on Fascism:

    • The only evidence of propaganda I saw might have been the History & Moral Philosophy class.
    • The system of citizenship seems to exclude corporatism by simply operating as read - if you're busy running a company, you can't get franchise (you can, of course, bribe those who do have a vote, but those who have their franchise have earned it by putting the good of all over their immediate good, so theoretically, they'd be less inclined to take your bribe).
    • There wasn't any evidence of economic or social regimentation, and I couldn't see any government control over any aspect of personal or economic life (of course, one could argue that the restriction of franchise to those who had done federal service could be taken as such, and I'll leave that to a political forum - but again, see the above point that federal service is not necessarily military service).
    • No totalitarian restrictions on civilians - at least twice, the book showed that civilians were free to bitch about the system whenever and to whomever they chose; hell, one of the examining doctors has a good gripe about the idiocy he perceives in the franchise system to Rico right there in the federal enlistment building!

    So yes, the movie definitely sends up fascism (although I personally felt that it was trying a little too hard to smack viewers over the nose with the idea; if there's one thing Verhoeven isn't, it's subtle). But if Robert A. Heinlein had been alive, he probably would have said words to the effect of "There wasn't any fascism in the book in the first place to be sent up." (Heck, the Verhoeven version of the film probably couldn't have been made while Robert A. Heinlein was alive...)

    Ultimately, I think Heinlein would have readily agreed fascism is a bad idea. What he thought might've been a good idea was, to quote the afterword to "Who are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?" in Expanded Universe, that "a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37 degrees C."

So what do you make of all that? If you've read the novel, do you think what I've written makes sense? What are your thoughts on Heinlein's basic idea?

|
If you liked this post, please check out more Editorials and Musings

Comments

I read Starship Troopers for the first time a few weeks ago. I've always been interested in the idea that citizenship be earned and I found Heinlein's world intriguing.

I don't know if it means anything, but there is a brief reference to the axes and rods - the symbols of the Italian fascisti, taken from Roman symbols - that leapt out at me: oddly placed, perhaps it was a not-so-subtle reference to the nature of this society. Sorry, but I haven't got a page reference.

Another "clanger" for me was the reference to the protagonist's native language - Tagalog - on the very last page (I think); to me, the idea that this was a "foreigner" that we were identifying with is supposed to make the reader realise that, although this is a Nationalist state, it welcomes all humanity. Heinlein is pointing to a nationalistic state, but it is humanity against the aliens, not the US vs USSR or some other minor, localised dispute.

A basic building block of this society seems to be militarism. What would bind humanity together if there were not a war raging? From Starship Troopers, you get a very clear idea that this society relies on war to continue to exist; the value placed on military service reflects its foundational nature: without the Service(s), we would cease to exist.

You get a very strong sense of the difference between the generalist soldier in humanity's armed forces and the Bugs' highly specialised and stratified system of combatants, "minds"? and workers. In this, I saw a rejection of the hive society - much as Communism could be characterised, with each citizen having a clearly allotted role - and the multi-skilled, independent thinking citizens of a (utopic) Nationalist state.

I think readers tend to get hung-up (pardon the dreadful pun) on the public floggings and executions. There is something to discuss in the book beyond these trappings. I don't think Heinlein would necessarily have called this state Fascist (even to himself) but there was perhaps much in the notion that appealed and made it into his book.

Hi Luke! Thanks for posting! You've put soem thought-provoking stuff, and I thought I'd respond:

"I don't know if it means anything, but there is a brief reference to the axes and rods - the symbols of the Italian fascisti, taken from Roman symbols - that leapt out at me: oddly placed, perhaps it was a not-so-subtle reference to the nature of this society. Sorry, but I haven't got a page reference."

Aha! Managed to track it down. Ace printing, page 183, the words of OCS teacher Major Reid: "Force, if you will! - the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax."

I did a quick check, and you're right, the Rods and Ax, or "fasces", as they are known, were used symbolically by Mussolini and his (naturally) Fascist party. However, as you say, they also have a long history dating back to the Roman Empire, when they were used by Roman magistrates (and not just as a symbol, it would seem; as implements actually used on criminals). You're probably aware of this, but the Rods and Ax have popped up elsewhere, including United States iconography. Although this page ( http://www.warcrimes.org.uk/captain/murder_inc/blaironholiday/ ) takes a rather extreme point of view, it's a handy little visual summary of where the "fasces" have appeared.

Heinlein was definitely well educated, and it wouldn't srprise me if he was aware of the Fascist connection - but it also wouldn't surprise me if he didn't believe its historical usage outweighed its co-opting on the part of the Fascists. I have the feeling that those of Heinlein's time, more strongly educated in history than many of us nowadays (and I include myself in that grouping), would have more readily drawn a connection to the Roman magistrates than to the Fascisti.

"Another "clanger" for me was the reference to the protagonist's native language - Tagalog - on the very last page (I think); to me, the idea that this was a "foreigner" that we were identifying with is supposed to make the reader realise that, although this is a Nationalist state, it welcomes all humanity. Heinlein is pointing to a nationalistic state, but it is humanity against the aliens, not the US vs USSR or some other minor, localised dispute."

Indeed. That reference, plus Rico's comment about Ramon Magsaysay a few paragraphs earlier, have brought many learned readers to the conclusion that Juan Rico is a Filipino.

"A basic building block of this society seems to be militarism. What would bind humanity together if there were not a war raging? From Starship Troopers, you get a very clear idea that this society relies on war to continue to exist; the value placed on military service reflects its foundational nature: without the Service(s), we would cease to exist."

True. It's something that runs through Heinlein's writing; he believes that if history teaches us anything (and frankly, he believes that history teaches us a whole heap), it's that Man can be and is a stubborn, ornery, downright nasty animal - but that these traits are part of what has kept the race going (if not, natural selection would have selected them out). And, as such, it means that societies that down arms and sue for peace will be (and have been) walked over by their stubborn, ornery, downright nasty next-door neighbours.

What this means for the Federation of Starship Troopers, I'm not sure; Heinlein goes from saying that an indicator of a satisfactorily functioning society is that many complain but do not rebel to having a government leader in Time Enough For Love note that he knows he's doing his job properly when people try to assassinate him.

And what would the warriors do if there's no one left to fight? Would the Federation fall on itself, or would the perpetuation of a system where the voters do unpleasant, risk-taking work (even if not wartime military service) in order to earn their vote be enough to keep it running indefinitely?

An interesting question...

"You get a very strong sense of the difference between the generalist soldier in humanity's armed forces and the Bugs' highly specialised and stratified system of combatants, "minds"? and workers. In this, I saw a rejection of the hive society - much as Communism could be characterised, with each citizen having a clearly allotted role - and the multi-skilled, independent thinking citizens of a (utopic) Nationalist state."

Oh, yeah. Heinlein was very big against Communism - in fact, it was the utter failure of his efforts to get Eisenhower to not sign a nuclear-arms-reduction treaty with the USSR (whom Heinlein knew would renege on the treaty at the first opportunity, as they did) that started him writing ST. But ultimately he believed that Communism wasn't right for humanity, because it didn't take the nature of the human animal into account.

"I think readers tend to get hung-up (pardon the dreadful pun) on the public floggings and executions. There is something to discuss in the book beyond these trappings. I don't think Heinlein would necessarily have called this state Fascist (even to himself) but there was perhaps much in the notion that appealed and made it into his book."

I can understand your viewpoint, Luke; I kind of felt the same way when I first read it. "Just what is it that this guy's advocating?" Ultimately, I'd still be willing to dispute the point. If there's one thing that comes out in Heinlein's books, it's that he firmly believed in liberty, especially personal liberty, and I think ST is oen of those books that examines the point at which personal liberty meets duty, another concept Heinlein believed in. There are two precepts Heinlein was always willing to espouse: "Give me liberty or give me death!" and "Women and children first!" And I think it's fair to say these were firmly entrenched before he even started writing.

If one were to ask me, Starship Troopers seemed to be a book about an ideal world, meaning a utopia that does not exist. One can argue for hours that the Federation was dumb, would never work in the real world, etc. and would probably be right. Well, the same goes for anyone's vision of a socialist paradise...

One also must consider the era during which Heinlein wrote the book... maybe more on that later.

Meanwhile, for more Starship Troopers discussion (mainly the CGI series) check out my BBS:

http://s7.invisionfree.com/Roughneck_Ramblings/index.php?act=idx