Of Mobile Suits and Alien Bugs: A Starship Troopers Survey

Starship Troopers is one of those “classics” of sci-fi that’s continued to inspire various interpretations ever since its publication in 1959. So far, there’s been three movies, one CGI animated movie, a 6-episode OVA, a cartoon series, a couple of video games, and comics. Not too shabby for a fifty-year old teen novel.

Starship Troopers is the story of Juan “Johnnie” Rico and his experiences as part of the MI, Mobile Infantry, the military’s unit equipped with powered armor suits. Johnnie comes from a pretty well-off family, so joining the military wasn’t part of his parents’ life plan for their only son. But partly because of peer pressure and partly out of a rebellious nature, Johnnie decided to sign up at the military recruitment office with his friend Carl, not knowing how much this spur-of-the-moment decision would change his life.

In the spirit of Sci-Fi November, I decided to read the novel that started it all and see how the movie and Japanese OVA adaptations fare in comparison.

NOVEL

The novel, as I posted in my brief Goodreads review, was surprisingly readable. I’m usually intimidated by military sci-fi books because they’re usually chockful of tech jargon or military gobbledygook; Starship Troopers has its share of that, but in restrained quantities. The main focus of the book, which could also be its main criticism, is that the author spends quite a bit of time and words describing what it means to be a soldier and a citizen.

Heinlein’s thesis is that privilege comes at a cost. Freedom and rights are available to you because someone else put his/her life on the line so that you’ll be able to experience these things. It’s all very jingoistic and naive, but as a theory, its certainly good thinking fodder. In his version of the future, those who serve in a federal capacity — mostly those in the military — are the only ones who are considered as citizens, and the only ones entitled the right to vote and to hold office. For Heinlein, these are the people who are worthy to have these privileges because they know how to prioritize the welfare of others above their own.

As for the actual sci-fi bits, Starship Troopers may very well have been the first book to describe in detail the concept of powered armor:

Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons…. The “muscles,” the pseudo-musculature, get all the publicity but it’s the control of all that power which merits it. The real genius in the design is that you don’t have to control the suit; you just wear it like your clothes, like skin.

He goes on to describe how the suit isn’t the weapon; the soldier inside the suit is, and the powered armor just amplifies whatever the soldier wants to do in battle. I like that Heinlein describes the suit as being very much like “second skin,” so that the operator wouldn’t have to think about how it works, instead focusing on handling weapons and on not getting killed.

Of course, the reason why soldiers in the future need these mobile suits is because the human race is fighting an alien race known as the Psuedo-Arachnids (colloquially known as the “Bugs”). While their appearance is described as “a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider,” their societal structure is closer to that of ants or termites. The Bugs have various castes, depending on their role in the hive: Worker, Warrior, Brain, and Queen. Rico and the MI mostly worry about the Warrior, though later in the novel, one of their missions involve retrieving a Brain, which is tasked with controlling the Warriors on how to attack. (Side note: having seen Ender’s Game this weekend isn’t helping with writing this summary since I’m getting the alien bug races from both stories confused in my head.)

OVA (ORIGINAL VIDEO ANIMATION)

In 1988, Sunrise/Bandai Visual produced a six-episode original video animation of Starship Troopers. Sunrise, for non-anime fans, is best known for producing the Gundam series, so working with the world described in Starship Troopers should have been old hat for them.

The OVA’s storyline diverges a bit from the original material: there is more focus devoted on Johnnie and Carmencita, who was only marginally mentioned in the novel. The animation pays closer attention to the relationship dynamics of Johnnie and his family and friends. To be honest, I think the animators may have gone overboard in showing the drama between Johnnie and his family. Sure, okay, they’re upset that he joined the military, but the various scenes of slapping and hysterical sobbing belong more in a soap opera than in an OVA, I think. Then again, this was the 80s, so maybe I really shouldn’t be too surprised.

The OVA did have a lot of beauty shots devoted to the powered suits and their operators. The suits are remarkably faithful to Heinlein’s description in that they’re small, close-fitted and respond via negative feedback to the soldier’s movements. While it does take Johnnie and company a bit more time and training to get used to the suits, I think the training montage sequences fit better with the animation’s emphasis on the developing camaraderie and teamwork of the MI.

MOVIE (1997)

About a decade after the OVA, Hollywood came out with its version of Starship Troopers. Directed by Paul Verhoeven (of RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct fame), this version uses the basic story premise of Heinlein’s novel but decides to add a few more details to liven up the story.

In the movie, Johnnie and Carmen (not Carmencita) are high-school sweethearts separated by their respective choices in joining the military. Johnnie’s in the MI, where he’s joined by another high school friend, Dizzy Flores. Oh yeah, in the movie, the mobile infantry includes both men and women. Heinlein would’ve probably turned in his grave in seeing the co-ed showers.

There’s less of a focus on the social commentary of citizenship and responsibility in the movie, except for a small segment in the beginning where Johnnie and his friends parrot lines off the novel verbatim, and then it’s never mentioned again. In this interpretation of Starship Troopers, its the Bugs that get the spotlight.

I’m not a fan of insects, so it’s the stuff of my nightmares to think to have to fight off hundreds of giant killer bugs. The movie plays this up in bloody, sfx-laden, gory detail. In many instances, the movie satirizes the sci-fi genre trope of mere humans heading off to battle a formidable alien force. These warrior bug aliens are at least 10-20 feet tall, and we’re using bullets to shoot them? It’s the equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight. The movie adds more cheesiness by the use of the 1950s-style FedNet news inserts, with the overly-cheerful narrator regaling the audience with news of death and destruction.

Though the movie strayed so far off the author’s original story, I found it interesting that the moviemakers kept a lot of the small details, such as character & ship names, the attack on Klendathu and Planet P, and the setup for Rico’s administrative punishment. But in removing these details from their intended context — that is, Heinlein’s didactic philosophy — these scenes ring out hollow and nonsensical.

It is sort of worth checking out the movie if only to catch Neil Patrick Harris, post-Doogie and pre-Barney, hamming it up as always.

If you are interested in this universe, I would recommend starting off with the book — not because I’m a literary snob (though I am), but because I feel that it’s crucial to understand (or at least know) Heinlein’s perspective before delving to the derivative works. The OVA and movie are both lukewarm recommendations; the OVA may be too goofy for sophisticated millennial anime watchers whereas the satirical nature of the movie contrasts differently to Heinlein’s earnestness. If you’ve read the book or seen any of the adaptations, let me know! I’m curious what you think.

This post is part of #SciFiMonth hosted by RinnReads

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14 thoughts on “Of Mobile Suits and Alien Bugs: A Starship Troopers Survey

  1. I read Starship Troopers about 20 years ago and remember thinking that it was alright, but that I liked Heinlein’s non-YA stuff a great deal more (he probably would have approved of the film’s shower scene btw… though I hesitate to recommend evidence to back that up). I thought it was odd that the movie ditched the powered armor to stick the soldiers in even more danger, but it was all about the bugs as you say. I may have to check out the OVA to see how it stacks up.

    One book that has some Starship Troopers influence (setting-wise) that I would unreservedly recommend is John Steakley’s Armor ( http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/102327.Armor ). I read it a few years before ST, and it probably colored my perception of the earlier novel quite a bit since it was so much better. It’s definitely not a YA book, but it made an impression on me in my formative years.

    • he probably would have approved of the film’s shower scene btw…

      I stand corrected then! I would like to read more of his works, but I am taking the babiest of steps since I find the majority of adult sci-fi very intimidating.

      Thanks for the rec. I’ve been receiving a lot of good suggestions from these write-ups so I’m sure my library is loving all these interlibrary loan requests for all these books 🙂

      • Heinlein wrote a ton of stuff, and some of it is really good, but there is an awful lot of sex in a lot of his books. I re-read Stranger in A Strange Land recently and enjoyed it. It’s not as explicit as the things he wrote in the 80s, but it definitely incorporates a “free love” type philosophy.

        What do you find intimidating about adult science fiction in general?

      • What do I find intimidating… hm, maybe I’m only thinking specifically of military sci-fi or space operas, but I really find the worldbuilding and infodumps tedious. Like in the few adult sf that I’ve browsed through, there’s a lot of background knowledge (culture, language, biology, etc) that the author has to set up before getting down to the story.

        Though, in saying that, I’ve been reading through Octavia Butler’s stuff to prep for a blog post later this month and she doesn’t do that as much. Maybe it’s just a group of writers that I’ve encountered and got scared off easily.

      • The complicated world building appeals to some, but there are plenty of authors that don’t quite beat you over the head with the science. One last recommendation for today, I’m fairly certain that you’ve read “The Dandelion Girl” by Robert F. Young, seeing as you’re a Rahxephon buff, but if you haven’t, or haven’t read any of his other stories you might want to check them out.

    • (he probably would have approved of the film’s shower scene btw… though I hesitate to recommend evidence to back that up)

      Chuckle.

      Since most of that evidence was written post-1970 I agree with your reluctance to recommend it. 🙂

  2. Robert A. Heinlein is, well, complicated (and I say that as someone who quite literally grew up on Heinlein, more here: http://piratesobg.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/of-fandoms-three/). Starship Troopers is definitely a problematic novel in many respects, but one of the strongest points was the intelligence of the military. This is not a stupid army; it is one that uses limited resources cleverly and effectively (more on that in a moment).

    It is also worth noting that the novel is not generally considered to be one of the Scribner’s juveniles (it was originally intended as such but rejected, it also has enough stylistic differences to not really fit IMO).

    I’m glad to have found someone who has actually seen the anime (I haven’t), and it sounds like some of the intelligence remained in the show.

    As for the Paul Verhoeven movie, it is a great Warhammer 40K Space Marines movie (and about that smart) and an abysmal Starship Troopers movie. It was the training sequences that drove that home to me in terms of both stupidity and brutality (which the training in the novel very carefully was not.

    I’d be interested in seeing your comments on the other versions (most of which I haven’t seen).

    • I love both your comments! I saw that post of yours about being a Heinlein fan so I was sorta hoping to get your take, so thanks!

      I read somewhere that Verhoeven wanted the movie to be a satire — which I felt really did a disservice to the story since it could’ve been done as a straight out faithful adaptation and still would’ve been entertaining.

      When you write other versions, are you referring to the sequel movies or the CGI Japanese movie?

      • Your welcome, I was happy to respond. 🙂

        I think I saw that too, but I also saw commentary implying that Verhoeven hated the novel and wanted to destroy it. Certainly the stupidity of the Zerg Rushes had no place in a Starship Troopers movie.

        The sequel movies (if you can stand to watch them), I did not know about the CGI Japanese movie, but I am vaguely aware of a western CGI series (The Roughneck Chronicles?) about which I’ve heard slightly better things.

      • The Japanese movie was direct-to-DVD here in the US but it’s findable…? The Roughneck Chronicles was on cable, I believe but I haven’t tried looking for it so I don’t even know how difficult it would be to procure.

  3. In terms of reading other Heinlein, my rule of thumb is to treat his works as having a use by date of about 1970 or so. I think that makes Stranger in a Strange Land the last novel you really look at, and earlier still is generally better.

    I would focus on the short fiction and the juveniles.

  4. It’s good to hear that there isn’t too much military jargon in the book. I really enjoyed the 1997 film, it was wonderfully cheesy. I didn’t realise there had been an anime adaption.

    Really interesting comparison! I may have to see if I can acquire the book…

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