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Final Essay

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Sean Weeks

Tuesday, December 8, 2003

 English – The Romantic Tradition

Patrick Burger

Starship Troopers 

            Many people in today’s society would consider the novel Starship Troopers simply as an entertaining story. Likewise those who have seen the film based on Starship Troopers, once again, on a conscious level its entertainment value may be all that is considered. However, upon closer examination of the story, one can see that the book is, in fact, a very powerful extrapolation created by Robert A. Heinlein that ties closely into the historical timeframe and political issues that were current at the time of its publication. The plot demonstrates many conventions that classify it almost directly to romance genre story, with only a few exceptions. Heinlein uses these romance genre elements to create analogies and metaphorical comparisons to the societal and political issues of his time. Mainly he is criticizing the weak character of the Western World against the increasing power of the Communist Parties of the time.

            In order for a story to classify properly as a romance genre story, it is almost essential that there be a hero. Johnnie Rico is almost certainly set up to be the hero in Starship troopers. Aside from being the main character, Johnnie possesses numerous characteristics that would classify him as being a hero in a typical romance genre story.

A hero generally has views that go along with the audience. At the very beginning of the book, we get a flash into the future of Johnnie carrying out one of his military ground missions. This flash into the future tends to give rather strange first impressions of the main character. Tossing thirty second bombs into churches and brutally flaming dozens of “skinnys” to death are not exactly coherent with the moral views held by most readers. However, as soon as the scene is over, the author begins the next chapter by starting Johnnie’s life from the very beginning, explaining in detail how each of the decisions he made that led him into the army were justifiable on highly moral grounds. Not only are all his actions justified, but also the general description of his character is symbolically fitting to that of a typical hero. He is youthful and has respect for his teachers, friends, and family. Even though his parents do not wish him to leave and join the army, he still tries not to oppose their feelings directly. His heroic character is what Heinlein then uses to construct the plot and contrast to the character of the villains.

The main villains of the story who fight the hero are the “Bugs”. The description of the bugs goes along with the romantic genre conventions in that they are ugly, although is also contrary to the romance genre in that they are also intelligent.

“The bugs are not like us. The Pseudo-Arachnids aren’t even like spiders. They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.” (Heinlein p134-135)

Here Heinlein uses a powerful analogy, a literary device, to compare the “Bugs” to the communist political structure that was increasing in power during the later 1950’s. Heinlein described the Bugs as having a “brain caste and queens” (Heinlein p135), similar to the leaders of the growing communist parties in the east.[1]

            Once Johnnie graduated from boot camp, he became a trained soldier in the mobile infantry. Here we see how Johnnie’s quest and conflict is set up. The Bugs attacked earth and destroyed Buenos Aires. The mobile infantry helped retaliate with Operation Bughouse. (Heinlein p133) The author hints of how the attack will become significant to the romantic genre quest by mentioning its great future importance. Johnnie says “The loss of Buenos Aires did mean a great deal to me; it changed my life enormously, but this I did not know until many months later.” (Heinlein p133-134) When the bugs invaded the earth it created the element of conflict between the villains and the hero.

            Johnnie Rico becomes involved in the conflict against the Bugs for a long period of time. Eventually, however, the Regiment decides to attack Planet P in a mission called “Operation Royalty.” This mission can be identified as the death struggle, mainly because the Johnnie makes it clear that chances of death are very high. Here Heinlein uses the literary device of comparison. While discussing the nature of humans at war he says “If a man gets lost in the mountains, hundreds will search and often two or three searchers are killed. But the next time somebody gets lost just as many volunteers turn out.” (Heinlein p223) This goes to show how unintelligent humans can often be in the way they often go about things. To put it in historical context, it is also an underlying opinion of Heinlein’s on the strength of the Western World against Communist Russia.

            Just before a Starship trooper was written, the Cold War had reached its peak from 1948-1953. The soviets exploded their first nuclear warhead in 1949, ending the American monopoly on the atomic bomb. Soon after the world first satellite was launched by the soviets into orbit.[2] Heinlein was no doubt extrapolated using ideas generated during these events. The Western World was beginning to appear too unstable, diplomatic, and tenderly structured, as the tightly structured communist parties concentrated on spreading over the Eastern World.

            Heinlein is, in fact, quite critical of the society described in the novel, which is historically analogous to the Western World of the time. He uses again the literary device of comparison through the character of Mr. Dubois. Mr. Dubois asks Johnnie if he’s ever raised a puppy. Mr. Dubois compares an un-housebroken puppy to so called juvenile delinquents. He states how society thinks that any punishment involving pain will cause “a child permanent psychic damage” (Heinlein p115) Mr. Dubois calls this “pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense” and says that society needs to attain a “cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one”, and that “The basis to all morality is duty” (Heinlein p119)

            One of the ways in which the novel does not very closely conform to the conventions of the romance genre is how Johnnie, fails to complete the death struggle and defeat the villain. Instead of killing all the Bugs, he is knocked unconscious when a load of rock falls on him while passing through one of the Bugs underground tunnels on Planet P. Nevertheless, his comrades continue the mission, and Johnnie is rescued. While Johnnie didn’t exactly consider the mission a success, the Psych Warfare boys did consider it a success.

            The final element of a romance genre, the recognition of the hero, is definitely present. Johnnie Rico is promoted to First Lieutenant, and is called lucky by his mates. By having to stay in bed to recuperate for so long, it gave him the opportunity to miss some potentially life-threatening missions. When he eventually did get back to work, his dad worked alongside.

            The novel Starship Troopers is interlaced with a whole not of historical and allegorical depth. All of it is played out quite closely to the conventions of a romance genre story. By creating the novel, Heinlein very successfully portrayed many ideas about society and the world throughout the 1950’s.

Bibliographic Sources


Beschloss, Michael R. and Strobe Talbott. At the Highest Levels. New York: Brown and Company, 1993

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1959

Malia, Martin. “Judging Nazism and Communism.” The National Interest. 16(2002): p63

 McDougall, Walter A. “Cold War.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 1997 Ed.


[1] Beschloss p.102

[2] Walter p.854


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