War Stories

[originally published May 2009.]

For humans, war remains an inexhaustible subject of storytelling and analysis — such a compelling topic that experts trace the origin of historiography to the Athenian general Thucydides, who wrote The Peloponnesian War nearly 2,500 years ago.


The appeal of war stories, whether we read them for elevation or escape, is eternal. Science fiction, like every other genre whose authors have written for economic gain and popular acclaim, has plenty of combat. We’ll focus on two novels at opposite ends of the SF timeline: Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo-winning classic, Starship Troopers, and newcomer John Scalzi’s Hugo-nominated novel, Old Man’s War.

From the Halls of Montezuma

Although war has proven an eternally engaging subject, its portrayal varies widely. Science fiction authors live in a real world, and unless they’re remarkably oblivious, the wars around them shape their imaginations. For the two books I focus on here, we’ll look at how contemporary war experiences shaped their respective authors’ writings.

In Heinlein’s 1959 Starship Troopers, young Juan “Johnnie” Rico defies his wealthy family’s wishes and joins the military. Because he was an indifferent student in high school, Rico ends up in the Mobile Infantry. He refers to his service as mudfeet, but the Mobile Infantry are clearly lineal descendants of the Marines. More than anything else, this tells us a lot about Heinlein’s conception of the foot soldier’s role in the age of interstellar travel.

Portraying military life from a low-ranking foot soldier’s viewpoint is a relatively new phenomenon. In the mid-19th century, French painter Jean-François Millet scandalized his contemporaries by painting peasants in poses and at scales hitherto reserved for the nobility. Similarly, works on war before the mid-20th century largely focused on the officer class. Although Voltaire included in his most famous novel an episode in which Candide is pressed into military service, fiction with a private in the army as its protagonist appears to have emerged only after World War II, perhaps because of the amount of writing by and for footsoldiers in publications like Stars and Stripes. This footsoldier fiction introduced many now-universal memes: boot camp with the brutal drill sergeant concealing a heart of gold, the hardships of young recruits leading to deep emotional bonds, racial and ethnic stereotypes rejected as the recruits mature, and the rites of passage endured before their emergence as strong, vigorous, competent, and motivated soldiers.

When Heinlein released Starship Troopers in 1959, fighting in the Korean War had ended six years earlier, and World War II had been over for just 14 years. Although Heinlein hadn’t seen combat, he had graduated from Annapolis and served as a naval officer for five years before his discharge with tuberculosis in 1934. He spent the war working at the Philadelphia Navy shipyard in the company of fellow science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp.

Starship Troopers features a few technically interesting concepts, mostly in the form of the powered armor worn in combat. Heinlein describes this armor in considerable detail in the initial combat scenario and later in Rico’s training flashbacks. The suit completely encases the soldier and mechanically amplifies his physical motions. Heinlein delights in explaining the concept of negative feedback, which keeps the mechanical amplifiers under control. The armor holds numerous weapons and large supplies of ammunition, sometimes even small nuclear weapons. Heinlein develops concepts of tactical operations in these suits, built on the notion that a soldier can jump very high while wearing one, creating the meme that soldiers operate “on the bounce.” Because gravity continues to work in the old-fashioned way, most of Heinlein’s powered suit tactics involve taking advantage of the hang time at the top of the jump arc. During this phase, the soldier can identify and fire weapons at targets. Additionally, suits have a rocket assist to add time or altitude to the jumps.

Starship Troopers opens with a vivid description of a sortie by Johnnie Rico in one of these suits. Unfortunately, this is the book’s high point, and it deteriorates rapidly from there. Heinlein was then struggling financially — some of his teen science fiction had achieved a modest success, but he was still economically insecure. The political left had begun to campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons testing, and Heinlein came down strongly in opposition to the protesters. In Starship Troopers, a deeply antidemocratic book, he exhibits a society in which the right to vote is reserved for military veterans, a group that included him, of course. The book is interrupted periodically by long asides in which Heinlein sententiously argues this point. His device is primarily flashbacks to Rico’s experiences in a class called “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a veteran who self-referentially makes Heinlein’s point. Because the novel occurs in a world in which this is true, the instructor argues that its current truth is a sound justification for its fundamental rightness. Heinlein seems to believe that this little piece of amateur sophistry will somehow fool us into agreement. Starship Troopers staggers on through numerous extended misadventures during which Rico advances in rank, becomes an officer, and encounters in the military several of the people he’d left behind.

One of the most telling features of Starship Troopers is its conception of the enemy and the reason for war. The enemies are pseudo-arachnid hive organisms referred to as “bugs.” Their reason for attacking humans so insistently and implacably is simple competition for real estate. The bugs are incomprehensibly evil, completely without redeeming virtues; they’re merciless killers. Humans, in turn, show them no mercy. Compare this conception of the enemy with the portrayal of Germans and Japanese in contemporary Allied fiction during World War II, or, more to the point, communists during the Korean War.

In 1997, Touchstone released a dreadful movie adaptation of Starship Troopers. It preserved the nonsense about enfranchising only military veterans, along with a few of the character names, and then went rapidly downhill. Fortunately, no careers were ruined by the movie — no A- or B-level talent appeared in any of the roles. There’s an ironic symmetry that Starship Troopers, the novel, came out in the same year as Plan 9 From Outer Space, arguably the worst movie ever made. The film version of Starship Troopers tried for the title but failed.

Starship Troopers was controversial in several ways. The weakness of the character development, the strident advocacy of odd political views, and the flimsy plot have all contributed to ongoing criticism from the science fiction community, among which is the 1965 satire Bill, the Galactic Hero. Harry Harrison has acknowledged writing this antiwar novel as a direct rebuttal to Starship Troopers. It starts with Bill’s forcible induction into the army by a press gang and ends with Bill, now a recruiting sergeant, kidnapping his younger brother into the army, ignoring the tearful entreaties of his own mother. In between is a sprawling adventure in which Bill experiences bureaucratic stupidity, cowardice, boredom, terror, bravery, bloodshed, luck, and all the other “joys” of war. As with most of Harrison’s work, it’s a bit loose and wild, as if he worked in real time without rewriting or editing.

Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers during the height of the Cold War, slightly more than a decade after it commenced and 30 years before its end at the hands of joyous German crowds in Berlin. Although some of the irrational terror of the bugs is grounded in Cold War fears, it’s also clear that the real roots of Heinlein’s creation were in World War II. Early in the novel, one of Heinlein’s characters dismisses the destructive role of nuclear weapons in favor of the persuasive power of the foot soldier’s gentle touch. Is this tongue in cheek or some realization that nuclear weapons are too powerful for real use? Because of the comprehensiveness of nuclear weapons, the Cold War was a far more intellectual struggle than almost anything to date. It required thoughtful analysis of potential strategies and deep study of one’s adversaries, very different from World War II.

Influential Works and Conflicts

Author Title Year of Original Publication
The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE)
Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 410 BCE
Voltaire Candide 1759
World War II (1939-1945)
Robert A. Heinlein Starship Troopers 1959
Edward D. Wood, Jr. (director) Plan 9 from Outer Space (film) 1959
Harry Harrison Bill, The Galactic Hero 1965
Vietnam War (1959-1975)
Joe Haldeman The Forever War 1974
Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game 1985
Paul Verhoeven (director) Starship Troopers (film) 1997
Iraq War (2003-????)
John Scalzi Old Man’s War 2005
John Scalzi The Ghost Brigades 2006
John Scalzi The Last Colony 2007
John Scalzi The Sagan Diary 2007
John Scalzi Zoe’s Tale 2008

No Planet for Old Men

An entire micro-genre called military science fiction sprung up from Starship Troopers. It has produced far too many stories to cover here, but it includes books such as The Forever War, deeply influenced by the Vietnam War, and the Ender’s Game series.

One of the most entertaining recent contributions is the work of John Scalzi, who started his career with a successful blog called “Whatever” (whatever.scalzi.com). Scalzi reveals himself in his blog to be a prolific writer with a broad range of interests, a clever turn of phrase, and a sense of humor. He achieved some acclaim with two books of essays from his blog. When he turned his hand to fiction, however, he showed himself in a new light.

In 2005, Scalzi introduced Old Man’s War, his first novel, to significant acclaim — a Hugo nomination. Structurally it’s a lot like the Hugo-winning Starship Troopers in that it follows a man, this one named John Perry, who joins the infantry and leaves Earth to fight among the stars. In Scalzi’s story, however, Perry leaves Earth shortly after his 75th birthday, and we later learn that everyone who joins the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) does so at age 75. Perry and his wife registered their intent to enlist along with their required DNA samples at age 65, but before they reach enlistment age, Perry’s wife dies, thus laying the groundwork for the second novel in the series, The Ghost Brigades. It emerges that people on Earth are almost entirely ignorant of life on the many colony planets and are thus excluded from almost all the new technology used in the colonies. The Colonial Union uses Earth as either a source of colonists or recruits for the CDF. Space travel is a one-way ticket off Earth, whether for 75-year-olds enlisting in the CDF or for younger people embarking to join a colony.

Shortly after Perry and his fellow recruits head to boot camp, they receive a battery of tests. Their minds are then transferred to young bodies fabricated from their own DNA, along with various other odds and ends that render them nearly superhuman. This includes an integrated supercomputer plus a wireless network interface that provides them with vast quantities of information, incredible analytical capabilities, and instant telepathic communication with each other. The deal between recruits and the CDF is that they’ll serve for up to 10 years, at which point they can be discharged and transferred into a new body (still based on their own DNA but without the superhuman modifications). Of course, the new buff bodies are also amply supplied with both libido and stamina, so an entire chapter is dedicated to heavy breathing.

When Perry arrives at boot camp, we meet the obligatory drill sergeant, Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz, who greets the recruits with the usual dismaying assessment of their potential: “We’ve clearly just lost the battle for the goddamn universe.” Ruiz, at least, has a sense of literary perspective. He informs the trainees that unlike movie drill instructors, he has no heart of gold, and he already knows that they’ll be disappointing disasters.

The rest of the novel is relatively predictable. Perry distinguishes himself by using the new technology with greater creativity than his fellow recruits. Of course, that’s a given — otherwise, the story would have been about one of them instead. The CDF’s enemies are rather more complex than those in Starship Troopers. We meet the Consu, a race with dramatically superior technology whose fights with other space–faring races seem more for their own entertainment than for any other purpose, and the Obin, a race that might have been uplifted to sentience by the Consu and who figure prominently in The Last Colony.

So, what happens to the expensively fabricated soldier bodies if recruits die between when they registered their intent to enlist and their actual enlistment? The answer, revealed at the end of Old Man’s War and providing the core framework for The Ghost Brigades, is that they’re trained as soldiers. Because they inherit no persona from their DNA donor, they’re socially distinct from the superhuman soldiers in the regular CDF. These Special Forces, as they’re known informally among the regular CDF, bring no baggage and adapt more fully to their bodies’ capabilities: they’re less inhibited and hence more effective. At the end of Old Man’s War, Perry encounters Jane Sagan, the Special Forces soldier created from his late wife’s body, thus setting up the major plot line for the next two novels.

Then and Now

Technology came a long way between 1959 and 2005, so Scalzi’s soldiers have turbocharged DNA, nanites in their bloodstreams, supercomputer augmentation, and weapons that synthesize projectiles from a supply of nanobots, whereas Heinlein’s foot soldiers are equipped with mechanical armor and battlefield-support electronics more reminiscent of an attack plane than anything else. This changes the entire dynamic of battle — where Heinlein has to spend more words on the mechanics of getting around, Scalzi can focus on team dynamics and battlefield emotions.

Even more importantly, the concept of the opponent has changed. Many 1959 readers were quite content to imagine an incomprehensibly evil enemy, whereas modern readers expect a complex and comprehensible conflict. Moreover — and Scalzi makes this explicit in The Last Colony — the relationship between ourselves and the government waging war on our behalf has changed.

World War II had a clear moral imperative: the Axis countries waged an unprovoked war against their neighbors and created a vast industrial enterprise to commit genocide. This moral dimension combined with tactical urgency made the Allied fight imperative. At the time, there wasn’t much skepticism about the government’s aims or its behavior. Later reflection showed defects in Allied behavior, as in the treatment of Japanese-Americans, as well as policy errors that contributed to the descent into war, but all in all, there was virtually no organized dissent in Allied countries.

This unanimity of public support for war wasn’t just unusual by historical standards, it set expectations for a generation or two after World War II. Perhaps if the American leadership had been more used to making a public case for war, the entry into Vietnam might have happened under different terms or might not have happened at all. Instead, the government blundered into war assuming complete public support for its decisions. Certainly, it was astonished by the level of dissent that arose as the war dragged on.

So Scalzi, writing during the current Iraq War, couldn’t simplify the casus belli the way Heinlein had in Starship Troopers. Where Heinlein’s readers saw no incongruities in the relationship between humans and their enemies, Scalzi’s readers would have found such simplicity deeply unsatisfying. Needless to say, if the cause of war had to be more complex in Scalzi’s writing, the relationship among the government, soldiers, and civilians must likewise be different. This produced in The Last Colony a much more complex and, in many ways, more appealing conclusion.

Scalzi’s success with the Old Man’s War universe has led to two sequels and a pair of spinoffs. The first spinoff is The Sagan Diary, which reveals some of the contents of Jane Sagan’s BrainPal after she’s demobilized from her Special Forces body at the end of The Ghost Brigades. The second is Zoe’s Tale, recently nominated for a Hugo, a novel that tells the story of The Last Colony from the viewpoint of Jane Sagan and John Perry’s adopted daughter, Zoe. It also fills in some of the plot gaps, though I won’t spoil either book by revealing the details.

When I first read Starship Troopers, many years ago, I enjoyed it thoroughly and thought it was a tremendous book. Rereading it recently, I found myself compelled to reassess it as a very weak book, far from Heinlein’s best efforts. If you only read Old Man’s War, you’ll likely perceive it as having a very similar structure and political orientation to Starship Troopers. If you read the two sequels, however, you discover a more complex and ambiguous portrayal of the enterprise of warfare. Perhaps if Heinlein had written a sequel to Starship Troopers we might have seen a more subtle conception from him as well. We certainly know from his later writings that he had the capacity. We can’t tell if Old Man’s War and its sequels, which by today’s standards are dramatically superior, will have the legs of Starship Troopers, but we can certainly say that war stories will remain part of science fiction for the foreseeable future and that contemporary conceptions of politics and war will continue to shape these works.