A brief announcement: Along with coeditor Jaym Gates, I'm going to be editing an anthology of Military Science Fiction titled War Stories. The anthology is to be published by Apex Publications, along with a Kickstarter campaign, which is set to launch later this month. Stay tuned!
I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about Military Science Fiction quite a bit recently, and found myself returning more than once to Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers. The novel is one of Heinlein’s best known, but also one of his most controversial, receiving wide praise and condemnation from various circles of fandom. Yet, the novel marks a turning point in Heinlein’s career, one that likely helped to cement his informal title of “Dean of Science Fiction.” His career was one of the most notable of the generation of authors heavily influenced by the pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s, before turning to a series of YA novels and work with Hollywood. He was the first Grandmaster of Science Fiction and would eventually earn four Hugo Awards for his novels, including one for Starship Troopers. The novel is one of the first modern war tales in the genre, which in turn sparked an entire subgenre of its own.
Heinlein was no stranger to the military. In 1924, he attended the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., before graduating in 1929 at the rank of Ensign. Following his education, he served onboard the USS Lexington, where he received his first proper rejection for his writing. In 1932, he was transferred to the USS Roper, where he contracted tuberculosis and opted for an early retirement. As the United States entered World War II in 1941, Heinlein attempted to rejoin the Navy, but was rejected for his medical history. Undeterred, he ended up working with the Aeronautical Materials Laboratory at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, where he worked alongside Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp conducting engineering research that supported the U.S. war effort.
Heinlein was purely motivated by his sense of patriotism, which at points led to the irritation of his fellow authors. The wartime years proved to be influential to Heinlein years later: In 1944, he was moved by the release of a song, “The Ballad of Rodger Young,” about Army Private Rodger Young, who was killed in action on the Solomon Islands in July 1943. Another pivotal moment for Heinlein was President Truman's announcement on August 6, 1945, of the first of two new weapon deployments over Japan: Little Boy, an atomic bomb that had just devastated Hiroshima. A second, Fat Man, a plutonium bomb, was dropped three days later. Upon the news, Heinlein noted: "That's the end," and resigned from his position at the NAES. Before he did so, however, he submitted a five page paper to his supervisor at the station, outlining potential future projects that the installation could likely follow up on, advocating that they reorient their focus towards the new style of warfare that had just opened up.
With the conclusion of WWII, Heinlein turned back to writing science fiction. He had been able to make a name for himself in John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding Magazine in 1939, and throughout the war had kept in touch with the editor. Following the 1940s, however, he began to look to other publishing markets. Working with Charles Scribner's & Sons, he started a line of juvenile novels in 1947, beginning with Rocketship Galileo. Almost yearly, he published a book in a series marketed toward young boys. Heinlein often challenged his editors for what was appropriate for the demographic, bolstered by an ever-increasing popularity for the novels.
In April, 1958, Heinlein was presented with a newspaper from his wife, featuring a full-page ad urging for an end to nuclear weapons testing. Heinlein was angry: He felt that the nuclear arsenal that the United States had built up was the only thing keeping the Soviet Union and Communism in check. He promptly wrote up a full-page ad of his own, and paid for placement in the local papers. He sent a copy to President Dwight Eisenhower, and was dismayed when the president's administration began to explore the first steps toward a limited nuclear test ban treaty shortly thereafter. His worry wasn’t an idle one. By this time, he lived mere miles from the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters in Colorado, a likely strategic target in the event that the U.S .and USSR ever went to war.
In response, Heinlein set aside the book he was working on, Stranger in a Strange Land, to write a new, politically motivated story. In an April letter to his agent, Lurton Blassingame, he was pessimistic about the future of the United States: "I am convinced in my own mind that the United States is washed up and we will cease to exist inside of five to fifteen years - unless we quickly and drastically pull up our socks, both at home and in foreign policy. This opinion has been growing in my mind for years: I was simply triggered into doing something about it by this pacifistic-internationalist-cum-clandestine Communist drive to have us treat atomics and disarmament in exactly the fashion the Kremlin has tried to get us to do for the past twelve years."
On November 22, 1958, Heinlein wrote to Blassingame, telling him that he completed the new novel, tentatively titled Sky Soldier. It was a short work, coming in at 60,000 words, and after he spent a month revising it, he mailed it off, with the caveat that it wasn't one of his juvenile novels: "it is an adult novel about an eighteen year old boy...I have followed my own theory that intelligent youngsters are in fact more interested in weighty matters than their parents usually are."
Following the exploits of a young space marine, Johnny Rico, Heinlein weaves a story that follows the soldier as he volunteers for military service as humanity finds itself at war against an implacable alien foe. Heinlein used the novel as a sounding board for a Platonic philosophic style that rigorously encouraged service to the state— in this case, through Federal (read: Military) service—while at the same time throwing his own fear of Communism and the need for a strong military force to confront its expansion. Influenced by his work in the Military Industrial Complex during WWII, Heinlein understood the increased mechanization of warfare, and extrapolated accordingly. Heinlein never quite uses the novel for his soldiers to question the necessity of the war that they fight, but as a hawkish examination on the responsibilities of a citizen towards one's country.
Lurton turned the book over to Scribner's for consideration for in the Juveniles line, only to have it promptly rejected, effectively ending Heinlein’s ties with the company. He was irritated at the publisher and its editors and feeling wronged by the rejection, reasoning that his stories had been incredibly popular for the publisher and that this story would do just as well. Heinlein's editor at Scribner's, Alice Dalgliesh, noted that the story would likely work as a serial, and shortly thereafter, Heinlein sold the serial rights to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and the hardcover rights to Ace by March of 1958.
The story, now titled Starship Soldier, was serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from October 1959 to November 1959. The novel was repackaged by Ace as Starship Troopers and published in December 1959. It was met with both great success and with great controversy. Numerous reviewers (including the founding editor of MOFSF, Anthony Boucher) felt that it was an attempt from Heinlein to rationalize and condone a fascist state, while others felt that he was glorifying the brutal nature of war, all the while promoting his particular brand of right-wing, libertarian politics. While certainly true to a point on all accounts, historian Brian Aldiss notes that Heinlein should never be considered an author steeped in realism; in particular, his experience with the juvenile novels likely played a part in the amount of violence and action that he portrays in the novel.
Ultimately, it was Heinlein's patriotic love letter to a country that he loved intensely, and it remains deeply divisive to this day. Despite the condemnation of the book from circles within the fan community, Heinlein was surprised when the novel was awarded the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Interestingly, it was not the only military science-fiction work on the ballot: Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson was also nominated, which has also proven to be an influential work within military science fiction.
Starship Troopers would prove to be the spark to an entire subgenre of militant science fiction stories. A number of other works were directly influenced by Starship Troopers: Joe Haldeman's famous 1974 novel The Forever War carries a number of similarities, but drew more from Haldeman's own experiences in Vietnam. John Steakley's 1984 novel Armor draws on his reading of the book. Bill The Galactic Hero was a satirical take from Harry Harrison, while John Scalzi's Old Man's War borrows from Starship Trooper's structure. Beyond the individual books, Heinlein paved the way with the creation of a modern war story within the science-fiction genre, continuing, in effect, the style of “future war” stories that had come decades before, such as The Battle of Dorking by George Tomkyns Chesney, a reactionary story that warned of a foreign menace; and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which instilled a political warning, all set among a backdrop of violence. Hawkish, conservative and divisive, Troopers remains popular for its political message in some circles, and for its unadulterated military hardware fixation in others. Its influence will undoubtedly remain as long as there's armed conflict between nations.