Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

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Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Space Opera 2016 Reading Challenge and the 12 Awards in 12 Months Reading Challenge.

This is one of Heinlein’s most controversial novels. Along with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, this is the novel that invented the space marine and military science fiction. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, even Mechwarrior. Master Chief and the Spartans wear Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry suits.

The first thing I will tell you is this: do you remember the big-budget film made a few years back with Denise Richards playing Carmen Ibanez? Yeah, well; don’t waste your time. The director admitted to having only read the first couple of pages and it shows. If you’re going to claim that a movie is an adaptation of a famous novel, then tell the story the novel tells, dammit! Don’t slap a famous name on it, borrow a couple of character names, and then claim you’ve made an adaptation. How people get away with this without lawsuits I will never know. It was such a far cry from the actual novel that I don’t know why they bothered to connect it at all. Grrrrrr!

Okay, now that I have gotten that out of my system: Starship Troopers is controversial because it has a reputation as being an ode to fascism. Having re-read it now for the first time since I was a pre-teen, I think that this reputation must be due to one of two things: either people do not understand the novel, or people do not understand what fascism is. I am willing to concede the latter after overhearing some man confirm his wife’s belief, when they were passing through the biography section in the bookstore where I work, that Stalin was “Hitler’s right hand man.” A similar confusion has occurred here: if anything, the philosophy outlined by the characters in Starship Troopers is an extreme of communism, which, of course, is fascism’s polar opposite.

I can see how someone who didn’t read it thoughtfully might have gotten this idea. In the society of Starship Troopers, only citizens have the right to vote, and the only way to become a citizen is to offer two years of service (more if required) to the state. This service is up to the state’s discretion, with some weight given to a person’s preferences. And it doesn’t necessarily mean military service; you might be a bureaucrat in an office. But Juan Rico (whose native tongue is Tagalog; how director Paul Verhoeven and scriptwriter Edward Neumeier got their Aryan Nation Nazi fantasy out of a cast of Filipino and Hispanic characters I will never know) is assigned to the Mobile Infantry; space marines.

The Mobile Infantry is a brutal place, where occasionally bones are broken and people are even killed as a normal part of basic training. However, you can leave at any time, and the only penalty for leaving is that you aren’t allowed to come back and you won’t ever be given the right to vote. In one passage, one of the instructors informs Rico that this is so that only those who really give a damn about duty to others before themselves will actually make it through, and so that only those who are willing to defend that at any cost make it. It sounds like a “the few, the proud” speech, so I suppose you could take that as fascism if you weren’t paying attention. Except that it’s really the extreme of socialism; though of course, in the spirit of the time, it denounces Communism as being more suited to the evolution of the insectoid species the human characters are fighting against.

You see, fascism is all about a “superior” elite distinguishing themselves from common people and thus, proving their “right to rule” over everyone else, applying Darwin’s theories to social behaviour. Socialism is about believing that the group is more important than any one individual; which, in its extremes (such as Communist Russia) can be brutal, compassionless and dehumanizing. In this case, the welfare of the group must be more important to a person than their own life or limb, and this is the qualifier for the right to vote. I’m not sure this is a bad idea. Wouldn’t it be great if only those who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not interested in selfish motives could have a voice in politics? Of course I can’t think of any real-life way to establish this without creating the very “elitist” class that it would be intended to avoid, but this is a novel, and who is to say that the society of the future looks anything like the society we have now?

Another passage which might support the fascism theory is in support of spanking a child and of corporal punishment, which are accepted parts of this future society. This is not a popular idea in our time, but do remember that this book was written in 1959. Keeping that in mind, the fact that Heinlein includes female pilots and ship’s crews in his future military is impressive, based in the idea that, on average, women have faster reflexes and reaction times and, on average, men are physically stronger. There are always exceptions of course, and Heinlein’s military allows for them, but Carmenica (not even just Carmen, for crying out loud!) Ibanez becomes a pilot and not a trooper. Since women were denied the right to join the Apollo missions a decade later, this is downright revolutionarily feminist in 1959. And Heinlein’s women are no less brave and heroic than their male counterparts. The pilot of Rico’s ship flies directly into an overwhelmed fire zone to do a pickup, and then makes an impossible landing, giving Rico hell for risking all their lives by delaying the pickup all the while.

Now that I’m done arguing against the critics, I’ll address the book itself. Heinlein starts in media res and the rest of the book is excellently paced between philosophy and action. You never find out who won the war, or whether or not Rico even lived through the experience, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a boy growing up by finding himself in the military and creating an identity for himself as a soldier. It’s an old story; one not currently popular, but one that’s nonetheless true for many people and has been for centuries.

It’s worth contrasting Paul Mandela’s experience in The Forever War with Juan Rico’s experience. Both books have a lot of valuable things to say about war. In The Forever War, Mandela is drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in, and he finds the space marines to be an alienating, dehumanizing experience of horror and misery. In Starship Troopers, Rico volunteers during peacetime, before the war begins, and he finds himself and his personal identity as a soldier, putting his life on the line for the sake of others, and it fits him well. If you’ve known any soldiers, you know that one of the ways they see themselves is as sheepdogs, who protect the flock from the wolves. It may well have been Heinlein who gave us this reference. Starship Troopers was once on the U.S. Marines’ recommended reading list, only recently replaced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

And speaking of Ender’s Game: the alien Bugs that Heinlein’s troopers are fighting are incomprehensible to human beings, and were probably Bugs in order to make them incomprehensible, because the plot isn’t really about them. Humanity and the Bugs are competing for the same ecological niche; and in Heinlein’s novel, this competition is what creates the conditions for war in the first place; population pressure. It’s suggested that the technology might be available to just outright destroy the Bug planets, but they don’t do that because “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The idea is to force the other side to do what they want; destroying them isn’t going to do that. More than a little, Ender’s Game was an answer to Starship Troopers, in which Card suggests that humanity, if it possesses the technology to commit genocide, will do so; and that this is wrong because all life is precious, even those of Bugs. And that, too, is something important to be said about war.

A lot to think about in a little 208 page novel! But I suppose that’s why it won the 1960 Hugo award and is considered one of the defining books of science fiction. I chewed through it quickly and would have done it even faster if I hadn’t been spending those four days mostly driving. I’m sure I’ll read it again, maybe with a completely different viewpoint. But in any case, it’s certainly food for thought, and is definitely a must-read for anyone with even a casual interest in science fiction.

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Book Review: Oath of Gold by Elizabeth Moon

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Oath of Gold (The Deed of Paksenarrion, #3)Oath of Gold by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge and the High Fantasy Reading Challenge.

Okay, I was wrong.

If you read my review for Divided Allegiance, which is the second book in The Deed of Paksenarrion, you will see that I thought that it would be the one in which the ending would be the hardest. In a way I was right, because it was Paks’ dark night of the soul; but in a way I was also wrong, because she’s certainly got a hard row to hoe in this novel that concludes the trilogy.

I loved this novel. This was high fantasy at its best; non-stop action in which only bravery and honour could save the day before it was too late, filled with characters who rose to the challenge and faced terrible physical and spiritual danger and worse odds, with the fate of nations at stake. And yet it carried the hallmarks of what I am coming to recognize as Moon’s style; realism applied to magical fantasy. Logistics matter and political decisions have consequences, and even the best person makes enemies simply by being who they are. Best of all, Moon does not ever shrink from the subject matter of the story. Bad Guys do evil things and she doesn’t fade that all to black behind a screen. You get to see why evil is evil.

And I still see the bones of the Dungeons & Dragons game that the story was based on. In D&D terms, near the beginning of the novel, Paksenarrion was under the effects of a curse and, while the priests of the temple (grange) she was from were willing to cast an Atonement for her, they were not high enough level to banish the curse. So she went to a higher level druid to seek the Atonement, and in the meantime, since she made a level but could not raise her paladin class, she dual-classed as a ranger for a level or two. When the Atonement had been received she went back to raising paladin levels. I invite other Old School D&D nerds like me to read the first few chapters and tell me if you agree with my interpretation.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will say that much remains unresolved; not in Paksenarrion’s story arc, but in terms of the unfolding events. And I’m invested now. So it’s fortune for me that twenty years later, Moon picked up where she left off, and wrote a five book series centered on one of the major characters from this trilogy that deals with those unresolved events. I’m collecting that series too now and I’ll start into it when I have all five books and not before; because Oath of Gold picked up right where Divided Allegiance’s cliffhanger left off, so I’ll know to expect that in future novels from Moon.

Since I was reading this series for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge, and I won’t be reading any more Elizabeth Moon books for the challenge (because, after three of her books, she no longer counts as a “new to me” writer) I will offer my opinion of her writing in general. I think that in places it was slow and stilted where it didn’t need to be; but to cut her a break, I understand this series was her first and I imagine she has improved considerably. Her space opera novel The Speed of Dark won a Nebula award, after all. I got the feeling in places that one or two events were really the central plot of the book and almost everything around those events were setup, in a style that is similar to that of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels (but isn’t nearly as opaque and tedious, don’t worry.) However, her pacing improved considerably as the series went on and the final book was a not-to-be-put-down page-turner from about a third of the way in. Also, Moon’s experience as a Marine has stood her in good stead, in that her understanding of military logistics and strategy, and the details of military combat, have dosed her fantasy with enough realism that you can truly believe in it. Also, I like her characters very much, and I would like to give her a rousing cheer for the creation of Paksenarrion, who is probably the most believable paladin and woman warrior I have had the pleasure to read about.

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Book Review: Divided Allegiance by Elizabeth Moon

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Divided Allegiance (The Deed of Paksenarrion, #2)Divided Allegiance by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge and the High Fantasy Reading Challenge.

This is the second book in The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, and like most second books, this one ends on the sharpest cliffhanger and with the hardest ending.

I have to say that I wasn’t as fond of this one as I was of the first one in the series, and that’s unusual for me. Normally in a trilogy like this, the dramatic tension is greatest in the second book and the most riveting. But this one left me floundering in some places.

Judith Tarr wrote (featured on the cover of the original pocket book edition) that “This is the first work of high heroic fantasy I’ve seen that has taken the work of Tolkien, assimilated it totally and deeply and absolutely, and produced something altogether new and yet incontestably based on the master.” But I think that must be because Judith Tarr never played Dungeons & Dragons. It’s clear to me, as a veteran RPG gamer (the real kind, where you actually roleplay at a table with dice,) that Moon’s concept – which is admirable and of which I wholeheartedly approve – was to take a standard Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition plot and adventuring party, and try to imagine how such things might actually fit in a real world where real people do real things and react in real ways; where physics and logistics work; and where what we would call “game effects” have “roleplaying effects” that go beyond what you can normally do in a game. If you doubt me, consider this: a fighter, an elf, a dwarf, a priest, a mage and a paladin set out from the paladin’s stronghold on a quest to find sacred sites and ancient artifacts of the paladin’s holy order. They encounter evil elves who live underground, worship an evil spider-goddess, and who keep orcs and dog-headed beings that the protagonist couldn’t name for slaves (gnolls). I won’t reveal the rest of details of the plot because that would be heavy on the spoilers, but I will say that much of the magic and the good and evil powers work like D&D magic and powers. Gird, to me, is almost exactly like St. Cuthbert. And actually, I think all of this is great. The next time someone sneers at me about how no one wants books based on RPGs because they’re garbage, I will simply say, “The Deed of Paksennarrion” and fold my arms.

Because it’s good! I didn’t like it as much as the first one simply because of a matter of style. I felt that Moon did a lot of telling and not showing in the bulk of the book, as though the only actually important part of the plot was the encounter with the evil elves, and the rest of the book was just explaining the setup for it. It didn’t have as much of the logistical sort of realism that I loved in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, either. Also, I was a bit disappointed by how the first few pages of this book seemed to work immediately to undo the story arc that had resolved itself in the first book. I could tell that the resolution of the first book was not going to last because of some lingering doubts and chance encounters thrown in that otherwise would have served no purpose, but I expected Moon to take longer to unravel it. Almost all of the story that was resolved in the first book was undone in the first two chapters of this one. It almost had a feel like a dream sequence in which the protagonist dies, which is later revealed to be just a dream sequence. It felt like cheating to me.

But don’t give up on it yet, because Moon did a couple of excellent things with this book that I think we need more of in high fantasy. The first is that even magical healing is not simple. The second is that even paladins can suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, which is treated like a true battle wound but is little understood except by the most experienced soldiers and war-leaders. And the third is that a black-and-white, simplistic view of good and evil, is represented as not being a true understanding of the nature of good and evil, and things are much more grey than a typical such heroic fantasy would have us believe. Oh yes; and lastly, henchmen are real people with their own needs and motivations and personalities and names.

I suspect I’ll have more to say once I’ve read the conclusion, since this was evidently written as one story in three parts. And it certainly did the job, because I immediately picked up the third book once I had finished this one, and was grateful I’d had the foresight to collect the whole series before I started reading it.

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Book Review: Sheepfarmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Moon

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Sheepfarmer's Daughter (The Deed of Paksenarrion, #1)Sheepfarmer’s Daughter by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the High Fantasy Reading Challenge 2016.

Some people really loved this book. Some people really hated it. I can see both arguments, but ultimately I came out strongly in favour of it.

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter is the story of a strapping young farm girl who runs away from a forced marriage at the age of 18 to join a mercenary company that serves a good-hearted medieval Duke. That’s important because it creates some unique conditions. Paksenarrion (Paks for short) is almost painfully ignorant about life and the world around her. Many readers have found her irritating, insipid, and flat as a result; and I won’t lie, I agreed. Ultimately I let it go for two reasons; one is that this is only Moon’s first novel; and the second is that few modern people can appreciate how genuinely ignorant of the world a peasant girl actually would be! It’s not like she would know anything about politics or history or even human relationships; it’s amazing she knew how to read, and it was made clear to us when she signed her name to the company contract that her literacy is marginal at best (which is still about a thousand times more educated than most farmers in medieval times). Paks’ ignorance is a literary device that lets Moon show us her world as if we’re just discovering it, because she is. It’s just applied with an exceptionally heavy hand, which I would chalk up to author inexperience.

The novel has been variously praised for its worldbuilding and denounced for its attention to the minutiae. Both are true. This grittily-real world of magic and fantasy in a medieval culture is vividly realized; but it often slows the pace of the novel to the point of groaning tedium. It took a long time for me to get into it, and I’ve read a lot of books in between.

I’ll give it a pass on that one too. It is the first of what is intended to be a trilogy, after all, and I understand there’s now a quintet of books that follow it in a different series. Anybody read the Silmarillion lately? You want to talk about glacial groaners? And yet, that book is the setup for the classics we know and love, and none of them would have been possible without it.

As a medieval recreationist (and generally well read person) with an interest in military tactics and history, I found a weird juxtaposition while reading this. This is not a medieval army. It is a modern army using medieval tactics, and I will be interested in finding out how this came about, because it can’t have escaped Moon’s notice, being as she is a retired United States Marine. There is some suggestion that the Duke that Paks serves took his Duchy by force of arms in the past, and older nobility don’t feel he’s a real noble. Moon’s details about life in the company and in the barracks is obviously drawn from her personal experience in the Marine Corps, and it’s sloooooowwwwww if you’re not into learning about that sort of thing. I think her main point was to illustrate that unlike in the storybooks, nobody is born an epic fighter, and armies have to train together with a lot of repetition to be effective as a unit. Medieval armies, however, worked more like they do in Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for the uninitiated); disparate groups showed up following the command and the banner of particular leaders, and they tried to work with each other as best they could.

On the other hand, the medieval battles are brilliantly realized, laying out the importance of unit tactics, pikemen, terrain, planning and archers, and why all of the components of the army work together to create the effective whole; unlike most other medieval fantasies, which inevitably feature the cavalry charging forward and slicing down the enemy even though they are vastly outnumbered; something that, in real medieval battle, generally resulted in a lot of metal-covered bodies and dead horses. Oh, and did we mention that Paks is a common foot soldier? She appears on a horse only a handful of times in the book, and the horses were all borrowed for a purpose. I love that about her; she’s just a common soldier, not anyone exceptional at all. Except that Higher Powers may have a purpose for her in the future, but that’s largely hinted at and not discussed, and she herself rejects it.

I have only one bone to pick, and that is that Moon never covers the logistics; how is the supply train maintained in enemy territory, if they don’t raid? (Although hunger becomes a problem when a small group is behind enemy lines.) Where do the three or four swords that were lost or destroyed in Paks’ hands come from? Swords aren’t cheap in medieval worlds! In the midst of all this other realism I find that absence glaring, and I suspect it comes from Moon’s service in the over-supplied and over-funded American military.

On the other hand there, the reason why the Duke runs a mercenary company is because he can’t afford to feed all of his soldiers in his realm. He rotates them out into the mercenary force to season his troops and to earn their keep. That’s refreshingly realistic.

Another reviewer in an otherwise excellent review claimed that he didn’t think that a mixed male and female unit was “realistic,” even with effective birth control. I would like to inform my American friends that the Canadian military has been completely co-ed in this fashion since the 1980s. While there certainly have been incidents of women and gay soldiers being harassed by their compatriots, it actually happens considerably less often than it does in segregated militaries. As my friend Graeme, who is a Sergeant in the Canadian Army, put it, “You don’t think of them as ‘women’ per se; they’re just soldiers, just like you.”

I must agree with some of the reviewers who have said that they don’t see Moon’s characters as well realized. They aren’t. I was complaining of just that myself; some guy named Sonnet appeared near the end of the book after having been gone for a while, whom Paks recognized and greeted as one does a friend, and I couldn’t remember for the life of me who the hell he was or why Paks should care about him. She didn’t even give the secondary characters a distinguishing feature so that we had a way to latch on to who they were (like the guy with the hooked nose, maybe; or the guy who always stutters.) My partner argued that this was part of the point, however; things happen like that in a military – people die, are transferred, wounded, promoted, demoted, and generally, all of the people are parts in a machine that shift around to where they are needed at the whim of the commander. Maybe you’re supposed to get that feel. But I found it difficult and jarring. I didn’t care when people died at all, except in a couple of cases, which I won’t tell you about because that would be a spoiler.

Except Paks. I disagree with the reviewers who said that she was flat and boring. She rejects a lot of the way the rest of the world does things. She doesn’t do it out of principle; she does it because it’s just not who she is and she’s too naive to understand that the world doesn’t like people who don’t accept the status quo and will punish them for it. She is happy enough to stab an unattentive soldier in the back when storming a wall (and way to go, Moon, for supporting the idea that it’s not dishonourable to fight intelligently!) but she won’t abide torture and she hates wanton looting and stealing from peasants. We expect that of our heroines, and it’s almost a trope, yes, but usually they make conscious moral choices. Paks just does what’s in her nature because she knows no other way to do things. And she has a bullheaded stubborn streak a mile wide that I am sure will get her into more trouble in the sequels.

The same reviewer who didn’t think that a co-ed military was realistic also did not think it realistic that an eighteen-year-old girl might not be at all interested in sex. First of all, Moon’s deities are more like Catholic saints than gods, and her morality is clearly modeled from a Judeo-Christian framework, in which case the Holy Virgin is a perfectly logical archetype. Paks is somewhat of a Joan of Arc. The second thing is that lots of people in the world are asexual, and they usually know as teenagers. I grew up with a friend who is asexual. Often life forces or manipulates them into having sex, but they still aren’t really interested in it, hormones or no hormones. And in the third case, often it’s a trope in fantasy literature to hyper-focus on the warrior heroine’s sex life (or lack thereof, until the Right Man comes along to show them what they’ve been missing). It’s refreshing that this shouldn’t be a problem for Paks, other than with people who don’t want to take “no” for an answer, and they seem few and far between.

Moon also had Paks face misogyny from soldiers of a different culture. Paks just kind of brushed it off and expected obedience (since he was under her command); eventually he just fell in line, when he realized his misogyny would have no support. That, my friends, is how we should handle it.

I have to say, though, that one thing I really liked a lot about her military characters is that they don’t whine. They talk like soldiers; killing people is their job and they talk about doing it in a rational way that you rarely see in fantasy literature. They don’t lament their fate. They don’t go off about their childhood traumas. Neither do they boldly proclaim they will go where no one has gone before!

About halfway through the book the pace picks up considerably, resulting in a final confrontation that satisfies the reader and keeps you reading. I won’t lie that I found the first part took me months before I got there, however.

Overall, an excellent book with some significant flaws. But I would still recommend it.

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Summer Okanagan Library Reading Challenge Update Sept 9 #ORL @WW_End

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Deadline time! Did I make it? The conclusion of the Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge, a recap, and a short review of “People of the River” by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear.

Source: Summer Okanagan Library Reading Challenge Update Sept 9 #ORL @WW_End

Book Review: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford

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A short review of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford, and why it is an important book for Pagans.

Source: Book Review: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford

Video: Summer Okanagan Library Reading Challenge Update Sept 7 #ORL

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Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch

The time is drawing nigh and I’m not finished yet! Update on the Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge on the road, plus a short review of “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens” by Jack Weatherford.

Source: Video: Summer Okanagan Library Reading Challenge Update Sept 7 #ORL

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