Mon Nov 26 08:54:44 EST 2012

Starship Troopers

Ever since I came back from the most recent Port Davey Voyage, I've been looking for a way to get more quality quiet time, and the fact that we have three new crew on board means the ship is noisier during the day. Recently, I've found myself rising earlier in order to have some time for reading, coding, thinking or writing. It's given me enough time to read my next book, Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Science fiction books have easy access to a nifty little rhetorical device, and it's one that Heinlein uses all through the book. It looks like this:

  1. Set story in the future.
  2. Refer to present-day ideas or thoughts.
  3. Use the gap between our present (the story's past) and the story's present (our future) to show how present-day thinking causes X, for some negative X.
  4. By implication, present-day thinking in our world will also cause X.

You don't even need to explicitly state the negative effects: characters can just refer to ideas as having some sufficiently disastrous effect that nothing more needs to be said. The converse also works: go a little bit into the future, introduce some favoured idea and have it result in some positive effect Y.

Heinlein uses this device lay out his views on all sorts of things: the lack of corporal punishment, training officers directly from civilians, the purpose of war, the structure of military training and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. These mostly come from dialogues in History and Moral Philosophy class, a non-graded class taught entirely through argument.

In Heinlein's world, no human is born a full citizen. Non-citizens pay taxes, work, have reasonable freedoms but cannot vote and cannot hold office. In order to become a full citizen, a human needs to spend some time in Federal Service. Although there are several ways to do this, the one the book focuses on, and the one that is considered the "real" way is military service. The thinking is that an aspiring citizen cannot be trusted with the vote unless he has shown that he is able to put the needs of the group above his own. Unfortunately for Heinlein, the real world doesn't work this way. Countries with optional voting have issues with voter turnout, which unbalances the results. I don't see how making the vote harder to obtain would improve the political process. What might work is the other side of Heinlein's system: restricting public office to those that have earned it.

The problem we have is there are too many people, people who are meant to be working for the public, making decisions behind closed doors without really giving the public interest much thought. They get away with ignoring the public interest because the public is not interested. Perhaps it's because political involvement isn't valued because it isn't earned, as Heinlein says. Perhaps we've become too easily distracted as our world approximates Huxley's brave new one. Whatever the cause, people whose only connection to the political process is a vote every few years (myself included) are getting exactly what we deserve.


Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings