Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




Brian Aldiss

    This is the second-rate novel about which there has been all the third-rate talk.

    Most of the comment I have seen on Starship Troopers suggests that it glorifies war.  A careful study of the text (a truncated version of which appeared in F&SF) suggests this is not the case at all.  Although warfare certainly enters the book, its chief subject -- the one on which Heinlein works up his most delicious sweats -- is the subject of harsh discipline.

    Only by keeping this firmly in mind can any critic, amateur or otherwise, talk meaningfully about the novel.

    The tale is told by Juan 'Johnnie' Rico.  Because it is therefore in the first person, we must be careful to distinguish between Rico's attitudes and those of his creator, since the two may differ considerably.  Rico begins by telling us something of his life at high school and how insulting his teacher, Mr. Dubois, was ("He would just point at you with the stump of his left arm (he never bothered with names) and snap a question").  Rico blossoms under such treatment and graduates.  After graduation, he and his best friend go to join up.  So does a girlie classmate of theirs, Carmen Ibanez, although Rico is quick to disclaim her: "Carmen wasn't my girl -- she wasn't anybody's girl."

    Spurred on by insults and obstacles, the trio joins up for two years.  How do Rico's parents take it?  "Father stormed at me, then quit speaking to me; Mother took to her bed."  Never mind, Mother will pay for that lack of understanding of the male mind later.

    So Rico joins the services and trains to become a Mobile Infantryman.  Thus we lose our last chance of a glimpse at the world of 5,000 years in the future -- from now on we are confined to camp.  Our peeps at it so far have been hazy but suggest a world amazingly like the present, with Ming vases still miraculously surviving and a teaching system so unreformed that tyrants like Mr. Dubois still flourish.  We have learnt little of the sociological system, except that newspapers and cigars are still in fashion, and that you have to serve a term in the services before you can vote; or, as it says here, "the franchise is today limited to discharged veterans."

    With Rico in training, we enter the main body of the book.  It seems to me that the freshest point Heinlein makes in Starship Troopers is that however far into the future you go, or however deadly your weapons, there will be a place still for the infantryman.  In other words, plus ça change . . . which unfortunately applies also to the training course; apart from the addition of a few colourful details -- and a notable absence of humour -- Rico's squaddie days are personally and boringly familiar to thousands of us.

    We hear little of the other trainees.  Sergeant Zim is the man who takes Rico's fancy.  Zim the old fire-eater, Zim with his perpetual flow of orders, energy, and invective.  "He described our shortcomings, physical, mental, moral, and genetic, in great detail.  But somehow I was not insulted," says Rico.  Naturally he was not insulted; being disciplined and degraded was meat and drink to him.

    This explains why we hear more about flogging than about Rico's equals.  It also partially explains a strange remark Rico makes about his power suit.

    The suit is a nice sf invention, well described and understandable; here Heinlein really draws the detail for which his admirers praise him.  Oddly -- and since his subject is not warfare I think also significantly -- he devotes little time to the M.I.'s actual weapons: they remain far less vivid than, for example, the splendid armoury toted by the colonists in Harry Harrison's Deathworld.  Anyway, Rico loves his suit.  In a burst of sentiment he says, "If I ever find a suit that will let me scratch between my shoulder blades, I'll marry it."  One reader at least felt that this would be a perfect match.

    Grim day follows grim day.  A glimpse of the outside world is afforded us with a letter from Mother ("A thousand kisses to my baby") and a far nicer one from old Dubois.  For all his nastiness, old Dubois is okay.  Now at last we have the explanation of his "snotty superior manner" -- he too was in the M.I.

    Even Zim has a misty moment at the thought of it.

    Soldiering on, Rico is appointed to a ship and becomes one of Rasczak's Roughnecks.  We had a foretaste of his doing his stuff with this outfit in the first chapter.  Events become rougher.  Rico signs on for twenty years.  Despite what Father said on page 24 ("We've outgrown wars"), a war is in progress, the Bug war, and Rico sees action.  He loses his mother when Buenos Aires is smeared, but -- well, hell, that's war.  Far more wounding is when Rasczak himself is killed, Lt. Rasczak, "the head of the family from which we took our name, the father who made us what we were."

    After that, if anyone in the outfit did anything wrong, the sergeant had only to say, "The Lieutenant wouldn't like that," and "it was almost more than a man could take."  Even a big strong masochist like Rico.

    It is nearly time to leave Rico, still learning "how to be a one man catastrophe."  He is a Lieutenant himself now, and it's a stroke of luck that his name begins with R, so as not to ruin the old alliteration now that his outfit is named Rico's Roughnecks.  More joy: Father has joined up since Mother was smeared, and wins promotion in the same mob, so that Rico can legitimately hug his platoon sergeant before they go into action . . . 

    To end with martial music: "To the everlasting glory of the Infantry."

    I have said enough, and Rico too much, to show that this soft-centered soldier should have been recommended for a psychiatric report rather than promotion, and that from a Freudian point of view, Starship Troopers is a shower of hoarse horse laughter.  Rico longs to be humiliated, searches for trouble and a substitute father figure, both of which he finds of course in the M.I. -- referred to significantly as a "paternalistic organization."

    Evidence shows that this was not the portrait of Rico that Heinlein intended.  There is no sign of awareness (as for instance there was in that fine and authentically tough film End As A Man) that this sort of military establishment breeds bullies and bastards and toadies; nor could there be, for the whole novel -- whilst passing itself off as a semi-documentary by eschewing plot -- is too far from reality.

    Consider how much sentimentality has warped it from the truth in the scene where Rico fights an uppish squad leader, Ace.  They fight hard and rough in a locked shower and Rico is beaten.  Fine.  He comes round to find Ace reviving him and begging to be hit.  So Rico hits him.  Ace collapses and says, "Okay, Johnnie, I've learned my lesson."

    This does not ring true, nor does the scene where officers almost weep over a flogging they ordered.  In the words of the old joke, these people aren't tough, they only smell strong.

    Such fogging by sentiment gives us a very cloudy novel about soldiers.  Here are the old clichés of the genre: the tough lovable sarge, the cub who makes good, the overheated loyalties, the velvet hearts in iron gloves.  But more tolerable clichés (i.e. clichés more in line with fact and the eternal verities of soldiering) don't appear.  Such items as swearing, boozing, shirking, brothel-going, etc., come not within Rico's strait-jacketed gaze.

    About the sf side of the novel, which is slender, I find little to say apart from what I have already said about the weapons and the powered suit.  The two enemy races named, the Skinnies and the Bugs, are hardly portrayed, the latter in particular being no more than pulp BEMS, there merely to provide targets.  How should we learn more of them with a narrator as coldly inhibited against anyone or anything outside uniform as Rico?  When he blasts a Skinny building, "I didn't know what it was I had cracked open.  A congregation in church -- a Skinny flophouse -- maybe even their defense headquarters."  It's all one to this ill-starred trooper.

    Finally, what of that unimportant point on which some people have concentrated: is Starship Troopers pro-war?  Purely as a guess, I'd say Heinlein wrote this in disgusted reaction against the soft aimlessness that threatens democratic countries as severely as Communism.  He knocks over a pair of straw dummies, the old platitudes that 'violence never settles anything' and that 'the best things in life are free,' but what's controversial in that?

    No sir, this novel is guaranteed not to harm a fly, despite a few unhealthy mother- and father-things floating in its shallows.  It's quite drinkable, but very small beer.

    --(Reprinted from Vector 13, the Journal of the British Science Fiction Society)


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As published in The Proceedings of the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies #141, November 1961.

Graphics by Kelly