At first glance, Starship Troopers is one more of Heinlein’s juvenile wish-fulfillment stories. In it, an American lad progresses from green adolescence to seasoned manhood. In this case, the young hero even ends up with his overbearing father as his military inferior. The novel shows Heinlein at mid-career, in transition to his adult and philosophic science fiction, including Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Progressive literary elements abound. The hero is Hispanic, women have at least equal standing in the fighting services, and humanity has homogenized into a rosy United Nations dream-portrait. Much of Starship Troopers, however, is conservative/ libertarian polemic, a manifesto for a future society regrouped after a period of anarchy brought on by decadent populism of the late twentieth century.
Heinlein extrapolates that breakdown from the vantage point of the 1950’s, but his predictions for the end of the twentieth century and beyond strike many readers as disturbingly close to home. In his “history and moral philosophy” class, Johnny’s teacher discusses “disorders” of the late twentieth century that preceded the breakup of the North American republic. He states that people were born with only the instinct for survival and did what they needed to for survival. Receiving no punishment for their actions, juveniles presumed that their gang activity was “moral.”
Considering that most of the readers of Starship Troopers are juveniles, Heinlein can hardly be accused of pandering to his audience. Johnny’s twenty-third century society has moved beyond youth culture. Civilization has become a Spartan meritocracy. Only those who have served in the military services may vote, public corporal and capital punishment are swift and sure, and the human race marches through the galaxy in rational libertarian glory. The book is unabashedly pro-military, and each chapter’s epigraph is made up of army apocrypha, including quotations from infantry manuals.
Although the reception of Starship Troopers was mixed (Heinlein’s regular publisher, Scribner’s, refused to publish it because of the violence it contains), the novel won the prestigious Hugo Award for 1960. Some critics have described Heinlein’s future vision as monstrously simplistic, or even fascist. Heinlein in turn saw such thinking as a symptom of a dark, embarrassing period in history, a regression in humankind’s evolution to true maturity.