In the classic 1959 Sci-Fi novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein lays out a view of the future where only the military is allowed full citizenship and suffrage. He presents democracy as intrinsically flawed and physical punishment as an essential part of child-rearing. The novel is often seen as advocating militarism if not fascism.

By contrast, the 1961 Sci-Fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land seems to advocate the polar opposite view, and is partly anti-violence and anti-fascism. Stranger in a Strange Land is in many ways makes the case for Peace and liberty, in the same way that Starship Troopers outlines the value of never-ending conflict. The tone and spirit and even writing of the two novels are as if they came from two different authors, or at least viewpoints.

How did Heinlein reconcile the opposing world-views of these two classics?

Were there any interviews where Heinlein addressed the conflict between these two novels? How did he respond to accusations of fascism? Did Heinlein ever openly reject any of the views in Starship Troopers?

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    How do you know his books were advocating the things they represented? Orwell wasn't exactly advocating for totalitarianism when he wrote 1984. – J Doe Feb 10 '17 at 4:38
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    @MarkRogers> Not sure how closely you read the book, but it clearly stated that there were many forms of service you could earn franchise with, not merely military. The main goal was that you had to, essentially, be selfless enough to do something miserable for the greater good in order to earn the right to vote and hold office. – Paul Feb 10 '17 at 4:43
up vote 62 down vote accepted

As late as 1980, the year of publication for Expanded Universe, a book of fiction and essays, Heinlein made no apology for Starship Troopers. He attacked the book's critics as largely being unable to adequately understand written English. Heinlein also made a case for increasing the requirements for the franchise in some fashion and offered some serious and some humorous proposals. (I have to believe that the reference to "The Curious Republic of Gondor" was meant humorously.)

Heinlein was unapologetic about his glorification of the military, observing that he'd been on the Navy rolls for 56 years and he would have hardly stayed there if he were not proud of it.

As for how Heinlein reconciled the pacificist and warrior viewpoints, consider this excerpt from a speech he gave to a brigade of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1973:

I must pause to brush off those parlor pacifists I mentioned earlier... for they contend that their actions are on this highest moral level. They want to put a stop to war; they say so. Their purpose is to save the human race from killing itself off; they say that too. Anyone who disagrees with them must be a bloodthirsty scoundrel -- and they'll tell you that to your face.

I won't waste time trying to judge their motives; my criticism is of their mental processes: Their heads aren't screwed on tight. They live in a world of fantasy.

Let me stipulate that, if the human race managed its affairs sensibly, we could do without war.

Yes -- and if pigs had wings, they could fly.

Being a gifted writer Heinlein could adopt many voices, but it seems clear where his heart was.

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    THIS is the best answer here by far. – Django Reinhardt Oct 31 '12 at 15:00
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    " He attacked the book's critics as largely being unable to adequately understand written English." guess we never saw evidence to the contrary ever since. – Balog Pal Jun 16 '13 at 17:09
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    He does state that one purpose of military franchise is to prevent those who have never experienced war to call for it. – cmc Mar 14 '14 at 2:50
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    Also, the franchise isn't dependent on military service. It's dependent on service, period -- which might very well be military, but the gist is that if you want a say in how society is run, you need to be willing to spend at least X years contributing to it by your deeds. – Shadur Mar 29 '14 at 11:26
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    "militaristic" != "glorification of the military". At least, for 2 main (out of 3) dictionary definitions of "militaristic". – DVK-on-Ahch-To Oct 1 '15 at 4:16

First of all, we are talking about Starship Troopers, the book, right? Too bad they never made a movie based on it. ;)

The society depicted in Starship Troopers seems fascist only at the first glance: military seems to be in power, and corporal punishment is widely used. However, people only get citizenship and suffrage after their military service, and there is no evidence of any restriction of freedom of speech or movement for non-citizens. Also, you don't have a situation where one group has power by virtue of their ancestry, race, or religion.

I think the point that Heinlein is making is that citizenship and suffrage must be earned. Note that the military service in Starship Troopers is not compulsory. People can freely choose to serve, and in exchange they get the right to vote after they complete their service. This is obviously very different from what we have in the US and in most Western countries, but it is not fascism.

In ancient Athens citizens (adult men) were expected to either fight in the army or row in the navy. In modern democracies citizens are required to contribute to the state by paying taxes. Many democracies have mandatory military service, and all of them may conscript citizens into the military during a time of war. Heinlein turns this around, and says that citizenship is not a birthright, but something that one can freely earn by risking one's life for the state.

I don't know whether a society like the one in Starship Troopers could actually function, or whether it would be better than a present-day republic. But consider this: in 2008 US elections there was a very high voter turnout... a whooping 56.8% of voting age population. In other words, half of the citizens took their suffrage for granted. Maybe if they had to earn their right to vote, they would have placed a higher value on it.

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    Military service isn't required, only "federal service" (which includes government desk jobs). – Donald.McLean Oct 31 '12 at 14:44
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    As for the allegations of fascism, only full citizens are able to teach children "History and Moral Philosophy", which indoctrinates them into the beliefs of the nation and the importance of military service. And to address your point about voter turnout, this is not an issue with democracy as other democratic nations have far higher voter turnout than the US. – jennyfofenny Oct 31 '12 at 16:29
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    @jennyfo One of Juan's friends, Carl, made it into electronics R&D because he was qualified. I saw no evidence that talented individuals were wasted as MI cannon fodder or suicide missions. The sergeant's anti-recruitment speech seemed to me to be more about scaring away cowards and the irresolute. I'd guess that a larger percentage of individuals than normal ended up in the military because Earth was at war throughout the novel, first with the Skinnies and later with the Bugs. So we were looking at boom times for the MI, not the normal i.e. peacetime, situation. – Kyle Jones Oct 31 '12 at 19:31
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    @jennyfofenny Actually, yes, it pretty much does mean that he wasn't in the military. One of the things that bothered Heinlein about the modern military is/was the number of service men and women who fill what are, for all intents and purposes, civilian desk jobs. I was in the army for almost 8 years. I never, in that entire time, participated in a field exercise. One of the units I was in didn't even have field gear to issue. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein carefully set up the system so that support was handled by civilians and fighting was handled by the military. – Donald.McLean Nov 2 '12 at 13:53
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    @jennyfofenny desk jobs are infact mentioned in the novel - when signing up, one of the recruiters makes reference to the fact that they would happily try to dissuade those incapable of serving, but if they insisted (as was their right), they would find a job for them, with the example given being a blind and disabled person being given a job counting the fuzz on the back of some creature. – Moo Aug 6 '14 at 13:16

Your obvious negative opinion of Heinlein's ideas has led you into a false premise... The society of Starship Troopers isn't fascist, it's very clearly not a dictatorship. One of the points of the novel was to examine what a society might look like if voting was restricted by something other than age, but it's still a democratic society, not a totalitarian one.

As to whether the franchise was limited to military veterans, there's a very thorough article here (the first article) that says the statement from Expanded Universe (that most Federal Service was non-military) is wrong. The main argument is that the interstitial material in Expanded Universe has multiple errors that imply the comments were originally informal, maybe from an interview, whereas the book itself never says anything about non-military service.

lays out a view of the future where only the military is allowed full citizenship

Citizenship is not about military. It is tied to responsibility. As it should. And opposite as we have it most places in today's world, especially where "democracy" reigns.

And responsibility must be demonstrated up-start, and lasting as long as one's life.

In the ST world the setup has an ongoing war with serious enemy without chance for reasoning, so obviously military service is sensible way to demonstrate that one is ready to lay his life for fellows anytime.

I'm sure if you find a different way to demonstrate the same you're welcome as citizen and allow to rule over others.

He presents democracy as intrinsically flawed

What anyone with little mind can see, but H actually shells out pretty good reasons to back up the positions. One that anyone would welcome to address, just it's not happening. Both past and recent history shows the truth about it.

and physical punishment as an essential part of child-rearing.

The idea "Spare the stick and spoil the child" is present in many of his books. With all good sense too, in the original contexts carefully balanced with all kinds of factors. And explanation why alternatives suck.

The novel is often seen as advocating militarism if not fascism.

Yeah, but mostly those who can't read, who did not read, and essentially those who didn't reach even the first level in thinking. (And I'd be more than interested in conversation with whoever having that position and outside this set.)

By contrast, the 1961 Sci-Fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land seems to advocate the polar opposite view, and is partly anti-violence and anti-fascism.

Interesting, I never saw any contradiction between ideas in those books. And quite sure there is none.

It certainly can be created by unfair accusations and mincing words.

Let's see violence: is there any self-serving violence in ST? Show it if you can. And in Stranger Mike can just shift someone to another dimension, that is not considered violent? Well, violence is not the point, we just want the world in certain state.

Martian world just works differently, selection happens early and unattended. No one bothers with the larvae, using the stick or whatever. Majority is just left to die out naturally, and the few that survive are considered good enough as sentient being. And in a sentient society there is little violence. (See same idea in Moon and other books.)

And fascism is completely made up (mostly seem by people who you could ask to define or explain what the term means and see them baffled.)

How did Heinlein reconcile

With some hope he did not and should not. My idea of Heinlein that at some point he recognized same as Jubal -- people reject whatever saving efforts, and it's better if he just sticks what he thinks is fun. Those who approach the book with open mind and heart can understand them with ease. Most ideas are not really complicated, just become look like that due to massive amount of dirt added in our world. Once you learn to drop the facade and irrelevantia, can look just the original form, you can manage alone.

  • H. Beam Piper, a contemporary, had similar ideas about flaws in democracy but took it further - he felt that all governments were flawed in one way or another, and so would go from being competent to unable to function. He was no anarchist, though, just believed that societies had life cycles much like animals did. – Oldcat Mar 11 '16 at 0:08
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    I have always though that people view Heinlein's ST society as far more different from our own as in fact it really is. Many countries currently and historically include working for the government as a requirement of all citizens (The pyramids were built with this tax labour). You are expected to give up some portion of your life instead of the American way of some portion of your money. Hell, half of Eurasia requires every man to spend some years in the military. The only difference in Starship Troopers is, is that people are given the choice on if they want to be citizens or not. – Jonathon Aug 2 '16 at 15:06

I read people's responses here, and I cant believe that it seems everybody missed one important thing about the government set-up in Starship Troopers. i.e. that no one in the military had the right to vote while still serving in the military. Also, it was not just the military, but ANY federal service that you had to serve to earn your franchise. You only were able to exercise that franchise AFTER you had served your duty. Heinlein furthermore explained the reason the world was set up that way was "because it worked". Heinlein was big on being responsible for yourself. He also was someone who understood that it took responsible people to run things without running them into the ground.

Re: Reconciling the differences:

There is a clear difference in the settings: The Union in Troopers was engaged in a interstellar war, with at least three intelligent belligerents (Humans, Bugs and Skinnies). Stranger in a Strange Land was a first contact tale of a sorts (still clearly intra-system), with (at least as far was revealed) benign Martian aliens. Different societies facing different challenges.

The behaviors of the characters are predicated on the worlds / universes they in. In Troopers, there is a discussion in the advanced History and Moral Philosophy class that Juan Rico took at OTS that explicitly states the service based franchise is used because it works here and now. It is a pragmatic argument along the lines of 'It is the worst form of government, except for all the others'.

In Stranger in a Strange Land, the government wasn't working. And a new approach was needed.

While much of Heinlein's work can be read with libertarian strains, most all of his work is highly individualistic, where the protagonist(s) respond(s) to interesting settings. The settings may, or may not, have reflected Heinlein's view of where society was/is/should be. In that sense, there isn't a contradiction that needs to be reconciled. They are different people acting in different times / universes responding to different stimuli. So they act different. To assume they would somehow come to the same world view / approach would actually be the unrealistic / inconsistent behavior.

I always viewed this novel as one that, obviously, treated military service with a lot of respect. But I was never able to read it as an unequivocal advocation, even in-text, of military hierarchies (which seemed framed as a necessary evil) or the government portrayed there (kind of a mixed bag).

Heinlein had quite a gift for setting up a speculative scenario and seeing it all the way through. His own personal beliefs certainly made appearances, but more than that his books thoroughly explore ideas with which he may or may not have agreed before, during, or after.

While Starship Troopers absolutely shines a positive light on the individual soldiers and on certain military values, it also puts the vast majority of the fictional culture out there pretty neutrally, leaving it up to the reader to judge where it's good and where it's bad.

I personally came away with a strong negative impression of certain parts of the government and military administration that I don't think I would have taken away if they weren't up for grabs.

Actually, I think that Heinlein simply explores the questions raised by Nietzsche's writing. Stranger takes a look at the way the Ubermensch ("superman," the next stage of man) wields a power to change the world, whether he likes it or not; the world changes necessarily through the appearance of a transcendent, and democracy of ordinary people is little more than a way to retain order until the arrival of such an individual.

Starship Troopers, on the other hand, explores the other critique of Democracy as being inferior to a meritocratic system - also going with Nietzsche's ideas. That is, the power to alter the course of a society (i.e. voting) is not given freely, but earned (in this case, through willing to put oneself at risk for the sake of others). As such, the structure of society is never at the mercy of the lowest common denominator.

I tend to view Heinlein through the lens of Nietzsche, and I see his ideas as fairly consistent.

The book indeed discusses that military service is not the only option for federal service. Chapter 12 pages 173-185 discuss this in OCS. The very placement of applicants seeking federal service in the beginning of the book covers this as well. History and moral philosophy does not promote war but simply illuminates the fact that war is a necessary evil. It also discusses moral behavior and duty that all people willing to have any contribution to society should strive for. Heinlein's main beef with democracies is that it becomes too easy to get one's way. His analogy is like when we are given things versus earning them. We have more respect for the things we earn. The book also discusses that the people of the federation have all the same rights and freedoms of the unlimited democracies with the simple clause that in order to take part in politics and vote they must have completed a term of federal service. At no point does it ever say military service is the requirement.

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