on Starship Troopers

Here's a short section from my book Masculinity in Fiction and Film:

The rhetoric of the frontier [...] is clearly crucial to science fictions that involve contact (and warfare) with alien species. Alasdair Spark suggested that Heinlein should be considered a ‘Social Darwinist, whose ideal society is one in which the individual is free to rise to his “natural” level of power, wealth, and authority'. The same may be said of the model of competition, between humans and Bugs as competing colonists, that Heinlein employs macrocosmically in Starship Troopers. Victory, in the MI troopers war, will produce the colonial hegemon. Ziauddin Sardar has suggested that ‘Wherever we look, the colonising, imperial mission of science fiction is hard to miss. Space, the final frontier, is the recurrent frontier on which Western thought has been constructed and operated throughout history, or time’. Domination is legitimated through the pseudo-Darwinist competition for resources. Politically, this is legitimated through the novel by yet another authority/ father figure, Major Reid, who operates as a similar mouthpiece to Dubois. Underpinning the authority of the state, he argues, is force: the law is secured by violence.

“To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives – such as mine to make your lives miserable once a day. Force, if you will! – the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. Whether it is exerted by ten men or ten billion, political authority is force.” (p. 155)

(The bundle of Rods is another symbol of fascism, itself appropriated from the Roman republic.) [...] In his film version of Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven manipulates this speech for satirical effect: ‘force, my friends, is violence, the supreme authority from which all other authority derives’, put into the mouth of the character of Rasczak (Michael Ironside, who performs the roles of both the teacher Dubois and the original leader of the Roughnecks). Where Heinlein made the franchise the prime authority (made so by elective citizenship), Verhoeven exposes what he sees as the legitimation of military aggression in this rhetoric. Indeed, his cynicism about the construction of a military state approaches that of C. Wright Mills: he said, at the time of the film’s production, ‘The US is desperate to find a new enemy… Alien sci-fi gives us a terrifying enemy that is politically correct’. The threatening Other is a necessary legitimation of the militarised nation-state.

Although Starship Troopers is clearly a Cold War text, deploying what David Seed has called the ‘Communists-as-bugs trope’ common to science fiction of the 1950s, Verhoeven’s film version emphasises Western intertexts rather than either the war film or the Cold War. Arriving on a disputed planet, Rasczak, Rico and the Roughnecks seek out a human outpost that has lost contact with the fleet. The landscape they march through is red desert; in the visual rhetoric of the Western, this is Indian country. They come across the fort to find it overrun and all its inhabitants slaughtered. I.Q. Hunter is surely correct in identifying Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers as a ‘parody of Heinlein’s novel [and] a wicked deconstruction of the xenophobic militarism of both 1950s sci-fi and the war film’, but here, his identification of the ‘Bugs as Indians fighting off genocidal colonists’ is more pertinent. One of the most spectacular images in the film is when the Bugs emerge to surround the fort: the mixture of alien other, flood or tide, and imagery from countless Westerns is telling. The MI troopers [...] must withstand the ‘red tide’. Even if the film is camp and overblown, which it certainly is, Verhoeven is intent on exposing the underpinnings of militarism in narratives of the frontier, and how the price of ‘colonialism’ and ‘expansion’ is often death and destruction on horribly vast scales. The citizen-soldier, the Starship Trooper, becomes a troubling presence, whose violent means are not obscured by ideologically-sanctioned ends.

(End of extract.) I do not think Starship Troopers is a fascist text, but it certainly relies upon a rather naked expression of power or force as the primary relation between states, and between individuals. For liberal sensitivities, this makes Starship Troopers an uncomfortable book. It is, I think, a peculiarly American one, in terms of the ideals of the Republic, the ideologies of the Cold War, and its 1950s (re-)constructions of masculinity and fatherhood. But remember: the main character is Juan Rico, whose first language is Tagalog. He is a Filipino. In a novel which articulates a rather disturbing relationship between us and them, self and Other, Heinlein's protagonist and focus is from the developing world and not the USA, whose ethnicity is not 'white': no small thing for a science fiction text from the late 1950s.


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