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a question of genus

Having reread a few Heinlein stories recently, I went on to one I don't often reread: Starship Troopers. (That led to a fellow bus passenger telling me he'd seen the movie five times!)

It struck me that my thought about this story seemed confirmed: I don't think it's really a novel. Specifically, it doesn't appear to have a plot; at least, it doesn't have a conflict. Oh, there are external, purely physical conflicts, between humanity and the Skinnies and then the Bugs. But I don't see much inner conflict associated with them. The book starts out with Juan Rico saying that he always gets the shakes before a drop—but he's been assured that it's not fear, it's just a neurological reaction. Nor is there significant interpersonal conflict; Juan's father Emilio is angry over Juan's enlisting, as the sort of thing respectable people don't do, but their confrontation takes up all of one sentence, and the next time we see Emilio he's changed his mind on his own. So I kind of see why Scribner's turned this down.

And yet, at the same time, I did find myself moved by the time I had finished reading it.

So what kind of fiction is this?

I think that Northrop Frye's literary categories might be helpful. Frye says that there are four kinds of fiction: the novel, the romance, the confession, and the anatomy. As I analyze them (this is a bit different from Frye's explanation), the novel and romance are primarily about concretes—people, places, and things—where the confession and anatomy are primarily about abstractions or themes. In a novel, you have the emotions shown as taking place inside the characters; in a romance, they're often projected out into the fictional world. Well, in the same way, an anatomy projects ideas and themes out into a fictional world, but a confession shows them inside someone's mind.

Starship Troopers is told in first person, and it shows Juan Rico confronting certain ideas—specifically, the ideas of duty, patriotism, and military service—and discovering their meanings. He starts out as a rich kid (the name "Juan Rico" is plainly allegorical) in a high school class arguing with his teacher; over the course of the book he discovers that his teacher was right, and by its end he has fully accepted his role as a soldier. And the whole story is about how he comes to do so. The battles aren't significant in themselves; their point is to show him performing that role. And that's a much more abstract narrative.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think it helps make better sense of my response to the book.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 20th, 2019 02:18 am (UTC)
I class Starship Troopers as a Bildungsroman, a sub-class of Man vs. Self plots focused on coming of age. It's about Juan becoming a leader. He starts off with hardly any free will, going into the Service because his friends did. Dutch let him take no initiative.

Then we see him growing into being a corporal, pushing Ace to recognize his position and doing recovery ops.

As a 3rd LT he's willing to overrule Zim on letting the new guy operate without babysitting and then lead the way underground.

So when we see him as a real officer he's earned it--and he's not the guy we met at the beginning.
Jul. 20th, 2019 02:49 am (UTC)
I can see some validity to that. But on the other hand—consider Juan deciding to go to OCS. He talks with Ace about it, and Ace tells him he's just the sort of young man who should become an officer. And he dismisses it, and walks away . . . and then ends up walking into Jelal's cabin and saying he wants to go career, which he has to do to become an officer. And Jelal has the forms all filled out, just waiting for him to sign after he takes the oath.

Now, from Juan's perspective, all this is something he did of his own free will, and in fact he didn't know he was going to do it more than minutes in advance. But it seems clear that Jelal knew in advance, and very likely that Jelal and Ace had talked it over and Jelal had set Ace up to put the idea into Juan's head, knowing that Juan would be less likely to get his back up if he heard the idea from someone who couldn't give him orders. It's the old joke about how you lead a pig.

And the point of this seems to be that Juan actually doesn't have much free will, or much agency, even at that key point. And I don't think you can have real conflict if you don't have agency.
Jul. 20th, 2019 03:29 am (UTC)
Oh, he was manipulated into that, clearly. But that's much more subtle than the beginning where he's practically led around on a leash. Which is the point--he's in enough control he needs to be hinted at, not bossed.

The agency is that he does decide to take up the hint and move forward into a role where he'll have to exercise more agency.
Jul. 21st, 2019 12:49 am (UTC)
I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think it helps make better sense of my response to the
Which is?
Jul. 22nd, 2019 04:28 am (UTC)
Re: I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think it helps make better sense of my response to
Well, basically, I found that I was moved by it—especially by Rico's recounting his fellow soldiers who had died in battle—in a way that I wasn't on previous readings. Heinlein is making that point by referring to the death of Rodger Young, for example. The last words of the book in Rico's voice quote the line about "the everlasting glory of the infantry," and that's really what the whole book is about.
Jul. 23rd, 2019 01:32 am (UTC)
Re: I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think it helps make better sense of my response to
Upon rereading your post, I see you mentioned in the middle that note being moved.

I reread Starship Troopers a couple of years ago. But I do not recall any deeper feelings for the work. I admit that I may have overlooked the recounting of those who died in battle due to my frequent reading of War Porn, and Military SF.
Jul. 23rd, 2019 02:50 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think it helps make better sense of my response to
Back when John Scalzi's career was just getting started, a friend recommended his books to me as like Starship Troopers, but without the philosophical discussions. I tried reading one of them and could not get through it, which led me to the conclusion that I liked the philosophical discussions more than the military action.

In fact, while Starship Troopers certainly has scenes of battle—an important one in the first chapter, and a crucial one just before the end—I have to say that I rather skimmed through them this time. They did provide a model for SF about military action, but the "action" as such tends to bore me. The military sf writers I like are the ones like S.M. Stirling and Elizabeth Moon who put you into the heads of the combatants, showing you not just what they're doing but what they're thinking and feeling. And really, I think Heinlein does a mediocre job of this. Where he's stronger is in the evocation of military tradition, and that mostly takes place between combat scenes.
Jul. 24th, 2019 12:22 am (UTC)
Re: I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but I think it helps make better sense of my response to
I've never read John Scalzi's work, but I have read David Drake, some S.M. Stirling, David Weber, Tanya Huff, Jerry Pournelle, as well as Craig Sherman and Dan Cragg. I enjoy well written action scenes, not that all of the former authors can write such.

I agree that Heinlein does a mediocre job writing action scenes, I cannot recall any of his stories firing up my blood. I am undecided as to how well he does at evoking military tradition. His character, Rico, is certainly moved, but I do not think I was.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )