Saturday, 24 May 2008

Bug-hunts and militarism

It's not often that films resurrect political controversies that accompanied books published decades ago, but this was the case with Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, which had its UK terrestrial TV premiere on Friday night. The film is based on Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel of the same name, which depicts a future war between humans and alien "Bugs". The book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960, and has been massively influential. In fiction and film, it originated the now-familiar "Space Marine" genre; and as a book, it has long-running popularity in the US military, being on the reading lists of various services and military academies.

The controversy concerned the politics. Robert Heinlein was one of a number of US science fiction authors with libertarian/right-wing leanings, and the book (through extensive in-book polemic and lectures) argues for a system of government that critics described as promoting militarism (Dean McLaughlin called it "a book-length recruiting poster") or even amounting to fascism. Heinlein's society is admirable in many respects - there is no racism or sexism, and it is definitely meritocratic. But its peculiarities include a two-tiered citizenship, in which only military veterans are allowed to vote or hold public office (in Heinlein's view, a means to ensure that some rights in society should only come if you have proven responsibility). See Wikipedia for more detail on the contraversies.

With Heinlein, the description "armchair general" springs readily to mind. Although he served in the US Navy, he was invalided out with tuberculosis and spent World War 2 as a civilian. Other science fiction writers who had seen active service were incensed enough to write ripostes with a different spin on the same scenario: Joe Haldemann's The Forever War and Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero. I find both far better reading than the fairly didactic original. Joe Haldemann, who was drafted into the Vietnam War, during which he was wounded, writes tellingly about personal loss and the culture shock of returning veterans, exploring this through the device of time dilation in faster-than-light travel. Round trips to and from military engagements take a short time from the traveller's viewpoint, but decades and even centuries from the viewpoint of Earth. Soldiers therefore return to find loved ones long-dead, and encounter even more radical social changes (at one point, the veteran hero finds he is called "the old queer" by new recruits, because while he has been away homosexuality has become the norm, in order to counter disastrous overpopulation).

Harry Harrison, who served in WW2 as a gunsight mechanic and gunnery instructor, took a different tack: satire. Bill the Galactic Hero is a comic dig at militarism and imperialism; it focuses largely on the extended pointless ritual of military life that its dim farmboy conscript encounters. A Vietnam veteran said to Harrison, "That's the only book that's true about the military." The satire tackles the creations of other authors too, such as the sanitary problems of planet-sized cities (Harrison's "Helior" is recognisably Trantor from Asimov's Foundation Series). There are also allusions to Joseph Heller and, I think, EM Forster's A Passage to India (the amusing defence tactics at Bill's court-martial appear modelled on the trial of Dr Aziz, and Felix Grant commented to me a while back that the description of the trooper Tembo - "He had lovely, purplish-black skin that made Bill a little jealous, because his was only a sort of grayish pink" - uses a phraseology that appears to allude to Fielding's remark about the white races being "pinko-grey").

Which leads to the Verhoeven film. It didn't do well in the box office, probably because it wasn't clear what the director was trying to achieve. Verhoeven retained most of the details of Heinlein's book, but subverted it by adding a strongly satirical edge, kitting out the militaristic Earth culture with identifiably Nazi trappings. The result is a film that manages to work on its own terms as an action story, while making you distinctly uneasy that the heroes come from a society that's deeply creepy by our standards (essentially a USA that has gone over the edge into a cheery fascism). This essay by Owen Williams - The Provocateur Auteur: Paul Verhoeven and the Reception of Starship Troopers (1997) - discusses the film and reactions to it, and Verhoeven himself describes his intentions in this interview, Big bugs! Big bucks! Director Paul Verhoeven rides "B-movie" Starship Troopers to a timely comeback. I think I'll get out the video: it looks worth re-watching in the light of this background. There are plenty of clips on YouTube.

Addendum: Felix Grant just reminded me of All My Sins Remembered, another Joe Haldeman novel worth finding. As described in this this review, it's a paste-up of several standalone stories by Haldeman about an interplanetary undercover operative, Otto McGavin. Initially adventurous in tone - the science-fictional equivalent of James Bond, complete with Q-style gadgets - the story darkens. As revealed by McGavin's periodical hypnotic audits, he carries an increasing psychological burden from traumatic experiences, personality implants that he abhors, and the tension between his unprincipled work and his "Anglo-Buddhist" upbringing, leading to his complete breakdown. The Forever War could be criticised as, ultimately, pulling its punches; All My Sins Remembered doesn't.

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