I’d first heard of this story years ago when I saw the movie that is very loosely based on the book. It was interesting, and so going into the book I thought I had an idea of what to expect. Well, I was wrong.
The main character of the book is Juan Rico. The book covers the course of his life through what ends up being the “bug war,” a major war involving humans and an alien species trying to destroy them. The book is written in a way that it reads more like a memoir than a typical book, with Rico reflecting on his past experiences. As a result of this, many of the other characters fall kind of flat, but it’s still an interesting book.
Earth and various other intergalactic destinations in the future.
The book opens with an action sequence, but then goes back to Rico remembering why he joined the Army’s Mobile Infantry in the first place. From there it traces his life in the military from basic training through officer school and then ultimately through the end (maybe) of the bug war. While the book follows Rico’s life, the plot is really more of a setting to discuss some larger ideas.
One thing that I wasn’t expecting when I bought the book was one of the taglines on the front cover: “The controversial classic of military adventure.” And as I started to read the book, I really wondered why it was so controversial. From what I remember of the movie (it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it) a lot of the controversy was left out of that version, and instead they focused more on the action aspects of the book (because lets face it, for most people, that’s a better movie).
But when you read the book, you find quite a few ideas discussed by the characters that would be very controversial today. The first is when they’re discussing the discipline system of their society as compared to our current system (in America at least). They discuss how most offenders are given warnings or just a slap on the wrist when they commit a crime, which doesn’t scare them away from committing more crimes at all. By comparison, in the futuristic society Heinlein creates, people are regularly punished (often physically) for even slight violations throughout their entire lives. This can start with simply paddling people in school, and advancing to much more painful punishment such as flogging or lashings as adults. And these displays of punishment are also public, so along with the physical pain, you’re given the psychological shame of everyone knowing that you were punished.
Another idea that Heinlein discusses is the ideology of how you fight a war. A direct line from the book, when talking about the defensive mindset that most people have when they encounter violent oppression is to act defensively and protect the homeland. Heinlein’s characters look at it a little differently saying: “This is sill, of course; you don’t war a war by defense but by attack–no ‘Department of Defense’ ever won a war; see the histories.” This is one area where I have to say I completely agree. Look at the way that we’ve handled the situation in Iraq. Trying to peacefully occupy the country, rules of engagement for what we will and won’t do, etc. If you’re serious about winning a war, don’t mess around. Get it, get the job done, and get out.
The last idea that I’m going to bring up is why they only let citizens who have served military service vote. The idea is that most people do things in their own self interest (that’s hard to argue) including voting. However, if you’ve been through the military as it’s described in this book, you obviously care about more than just yourself. They make their military difficult to join and easy to drop out of. This means that the only people who serve their full term are those who are willing to put the good of society as a whole ahead of their own good. Those are the exact kinds of people that you would ideally want to vote for anything in a society.
The story in this book serves more as a vehicle for ideas than what we normally think of as a story in a novel. But it’s very well written and the ideas will make you think, it’s a solid book.