I know I haven’t been doing these day-to-day, but I’ve been trying to keep my students engaged online during this pandemic. However, today’s piece is one of my favorite Robert Heinlein novels: “Starship Troopers”.
Unfortunately, Paul Verhoven is forever linked to this amazing novel, having made a horrible adaptation of the book. The novel indeed lends itself to film adaptation, but the version Verhoven made completely misses the core of the novel’s message.
The novel is an exploration of many of Heinlein’s ideas about citizenship, duty and responsibility. What makes it a great novel to read for inspiration is how Heinlein world-builds. He sets up a world where the government of the past was the victim of a military coup, and then the veterans set up a military democracy where in order to become a citizen, each person must serve that military. Heinlein’s military is multi-inclusive, with both male and female soldiers. In fact, females are prized for their ability to pilot spacecraft because they are physically able to endure higher g-forces than men.
The core of the message of the novel, however, comes in chapter 8. Lt. Col. Dubois, a disabled veteran who teaches a course required by all cadets but not for credit, asks several questions of his captive students. He leads them through a discussion about the idea that “juvenile delinquent” is a contradiction in terms, and then asks what the former United States prized above all. A student answers: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Here is his answer:
Ah yes. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost. The third ‘right’?—the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives—but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can ensure that I will catch it.”
In so doing, Heinlein states a basic idea that runs throughout most of his work. He uses a medium of science fiction to debate ideas about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In our work, we need to push the boundaries of sheer entertainment to discuss ideas that go deeper. As discussed in my first post on this subject, “Devs” does this very thing, using a story about a quantum computer to discuss the idea of determinism.
The point is that we should try to aim higher than just a simple adventure story or a romance. We should contribute to the conversation about life and higher philosophical ideas. In so doing we elevate our work to a higher purpose.