Sunday, September 27, 2009

Starship Troopers

This commercial for the video game Halo 3: ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troops) comes as close as anything I've seen to capturing the flavor of the Heinlein novel Starship Troopers. Forget about the 1997 movie directed by Paul Verhoeven; it's pure camp. Some might classify the original novel as pulp (see excerpt below), but I think it is much more than that.

The ODST project started as a Halo movie project involving Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame. Perhaps this explains the cinematic qualities. (I'm not a gamer; I just noticed the commercial while watching Iowa beat Penn State last night and got interested in what seemed to be an obvious Starship Trooper influence.)

Wikipedia: Starship Troopers is a novel set in an unspecified time in the future, although probably not in the far-flung future. It chronicles the experiences of Juan "Johnnie" Rico, the story's narrator, during his enlistment and training in the Mobile Infantry, and his participation in an interstellar war between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids (referred to as "the Bugs") of Klendathu. It is narrated as a series of flashbacks — one of only a few Heinlein novels to use that narrative device[11] — and contains large sections of character discussion and introspection, as well as exposition, all meant to detail the political theory and philosophical beliefs underlying the society that Juan Rico lives in.

The novel opens with Rico aboard the corvette Rodger Young, platoon transport for "Rasczak's Roughnecks", about to embark on a raid against the planet of the "Skinnies", allies of the Arachnids. We learn that he is a "cap" trooper (called this because they are dropped in capsules from the ship in orbit toward their drop zones) in the Terran Federation's Mobile Infantry (M.I.). The raid itself, one of the few instances of actual combat in the novel, is relatively brief: the Mobile Infantrymen land in the capital city, destroy their targets while trying to avoid unnecessary Skinny casualties, and withdraw, suffering three injured (one fatal) in the process.

The story then flashes back to Rico's graduation from high school and his decision to sign up for Federal Service, rather than attend Harvard University, over the objections of his wealthy father. This is the only chapter that describes Rico's civilian life, and most of it is spent recording the monologues of two people: retired Lt. Colonel Jean V. Dubois, Rico's school instructor in the subject of History and Moral Philosophy, and Fleet Sergeant Ho, a recruiter for the Armed forces of the Terran Federation.

Many readers have felt that Dubois serves as a stand-in for Heinlein throughout the novel. He delivers what is probably the book's most famous soliloquy, on how violence "has settled more issues in history than has any other factor."[12] Fleet Sergeant Ho offers a separate angle on military service to that of Dubois. (Ho has prostheses for several limbs, but does not wear them on duty at the front door of the federal building. This is calculated to remind applicants of the real risks of service, and to weed out those not willing to take such risks in the service of the Federation).

Interspersed throughout the book are other flashbacks to Rico's high school History and Moral Philosophy course, which describe how, in the Terran Federation, the rights of a full Citizen (to vote, and hold public office) must be earned through voluntary Federal service. However, the franchise cannot be exercised until after honorable discharge from the Service, which means that active members of the Service cannot vote. Those residents who opt not to perform Federal Service retain the other rights generally associated with a modern democracy (e.g. free speech, assembly, etc.), but cannot vote or hold public office. This structure arose ad hoc after the collapse of the 20th century Western democracies, brought on by both social failures at home and military defeat by the Chinese Hegemony overseas (i.e. looking forward into the late 20th century from the time the novel was written in the late 1950s).[13]

After enlisting in the Mobile Infantry, Rico is assigned to boot camp at Camp Arthur Currie. Five chapters are spent exploring Rico's training, under the guidance of his chief instructor, Career Ship's Sergeant Charles Zim. Boot camp is deliberately so rigorous that fewer than ten percent of the recruits complete basic training; the rest either resign (with no penalty, save never being able to vote); are expelled (likewise); are given medical discharges (which may however be refused); or assigned to lesser duties (enabling them to vote after their service is finished); or die in training. ...

Here's the version of the book I've had since I was a kid:

Yes, I enjoyed a misspent youth, during which I read all of Heinlein's books and even played the Avalon Hill boardgame version of Starship Troopers.

Give me a few Sergeant Zim's and I'll conquer the galaxy! :-)

Bootcamp for the Mobile Infantry: ... But exercise will keep you warm and they saw to it that we got plenty of that. The first morning we were there they woke us up before daybreak. I had had trouble adjusting to the change in time zones and it seemed to me that I had just got to sleep; I couldn't believe that anyone seriously intended that I should get up in the middle of the night. But they did mean it. A speaker somewhere was blaring out a military march, fit to wake the dead, and a hairy nuisance who had come charging down the company street yelling, "Everybody out! Show a leg! On the bounce!" came marauding back again just as I had pulled the covers over my head, tipped over my cot and dumped me on the cold hard ground. It was an impersonal attention; he didn't even wait to see if I hit. Ten minutes later, dressed in trousers, undershirt, and shoes, I was lined up with the others in ragged ranks for setting-up exercises just as the Sun looked over the eastern horizon.

Facing us was a big broad-shouldered, mean-looking man, dressed just as we were -- except that while I looked and felt like a poor job of embalming, his chin was shaved blue, his trousers were sharply creased, you could have used his shoes for mirrors, and his manner was alert, wide-awake, relaxed, and rested. You got the impression that he never needed to sleep -- just ten-thousand-mile checkups and dust him off occasionally. He bellowed, "C'pnee! Atten . . . shut! I am Career Ship's Sergeant Zim, your company commander. When you speak to me, you will salute and say, `Sir' -- you will salute and `sir' anyone who carries an instructor's baton -- " He was carrying a swagger cane and now made a quick reverse moulinet with it to show what he meant by an instructor's baton; I had noticed men carrying them when we had arrived the night before and had intended to get one myself -- they looked smart. Now I changed my mind. " -- because we don't have enough officers around here for you to practice on. You'll practice on us. ...

Zim turned back to the rest of us, still shivering at attention. He walked up and down, looked us over, and seemed awfully unhappy. At last he stepped out in front of us, shook his head, and said, apparently to himself but he had a voice that carried: "To think that this had to happen to me!" He looked at us. "You apes -- No, not `apes'; you don't rate that much. You pitiful mob of sickly monkeys . . . you sunken-chested, slack-bellied, drooling refugees from apron strings. In my whole life I never saw such a disgraceful huddle of momma's spoiled little darlings in -- you, there! Suck up the gut! Eyes front! I'm talking to you!" I pulled in my belly, even though I was not sure he had addressed me. He went on and on and I began to forget my goose flesh in hearing him storm. He never once repeated himself and he never used either profanity or obscenity. (I learned later that he saved those for very special occasions, which this wasn't.) But he described our shortcomings, physical, mental, moral, and genetic, in great and insulting detail. But somehow I was not insulted; I became greatly interested in studying his command of language. I wished that we had had him on our debate team.

At last he stopped and seemed about to cry. "I can't stand it," he said bitterly. "I've just got to work some of it off -- I had a better set of wooden soldiers when I was six ALL RIGHT! Is there any one of you jungle lice who thinks he can whip me? Is there a man in the crowd? Speak up !" There was a short silence to which I contributed. I didn't have any doubt at all that he could whip me; I was convinced. I heard a voice far down the line, the tall end. "Ah reckon ah can . . . suh." Zim looked happy. "Good! Step out here where I can see you." The recruit did so and he was impressive, at least three inches taller than Sergeant Zim and broader across the shoulders. "What's your name, soldier?" "Breckinridge, suh -- and ah weigh two hundred and ten pounds an' theah ain't any of it `slack-bellied.' " "Any particular way you'd like to fight?" "Suh, you jus' pick youah own method of dyin'. Ah'm not fussy." "Okay, no rules. Start whenever you like." Zim tossed his baton aside. It started -- and it was over. The big recruit was sitting on the ground, holding his left wrist in his right hand. He didn't say anything. Zim bent over him. "Broken?" "Reckon it might be . . . suh." "I'm sorry. You hurried me a little. Do you know where the dispensary is? Never mind -- Jones! Take Breckinridge over to the dispensary."

As they left Zim slapped him on the right shoulder and said quietly, "Let's try it again in a month or so. I'll show you what happened." I think it was meant to be a private remark but they were standing about six feet in front of where I was slowly freezing solid. Zim stepped back and called out, "Okay, we've got one man in this company, at least. I feel better. Do we have another one? Do we have two more? Any two of you scrofulous toads think you can stand up to me?" He looked back and forth along our ranks. "Chicken-livered, spineless -- oh, oh! Yes? Step out." Two men who had been side by side in ranks stepped out together; I suppose they had arranged it in whispers right there, but they also were far down the tall end, so I didn't hear. Zim smiled at them. "Names, for your next of kin, please." "Heinrich." "Heinrich what?" "Heinrich, sir. Bitte." He spoke rapidly to the other recruit and added politely, "He doesn't speak much Standard English yet, sir." "Meyer, mein Herr," the second man supplied. "That's okay, lots of `em don't speak much of it when they get here -I didn't myself. Tell Meyer not to worry, he'll pick it up. But he understands what we are going to do?" "Jawohl," agreed Meyer. "Certainly, sir. He understands Standard, he just can't speak it fluently." "All right. Where did you two pick up those face scars? Heidelberg?" "Nein -- no, sir. Ko:nigsberg." "Same thing." Zim had picked up his baton after fighting Breckinridge; he twirled it and asked, "Perhaps you would each like to borrow one of these?" "It would not be fair to you, sir," Heinrich answered carefully. "Bare hands, if you please." "Suit yourself. Though I might fool you. Ko:nigsberg, eh? Rules?" "How can there be rules, sir, with three?" "An interesting point. Well, let's agree that if eyes are gouged out they must be handed back when it's over. And tell your Korpsbruder that I'm ready now. Start when you like." Zim tossed his baton away; someone caught it. "You joke, sir. We will not gouge eyes." "No eye gouging, agreed. `Fire when ready, Gridley.' " "Please?" "Come on and fight! Or get back into ranks!" Now I am not sure that I saw it happen this way; I may have learned part of it later, in training. But here is what I think happened: The two moved out on each side of our company commander until they had him completely flanked but well out of contact. From this position there is a choice of four basic moves for the man working alone, moves that take advantage of his own mobility and of the superior co-ordination of one man as compared with two -- Sergeant Zim says (correctly) that any group is weaker than a man alone unless they are perfectly trained to work together. For example, Zim could have feinted at one of them, bounced fast to the other with a disabler, such as a broken kneecap then finished off the first at his leisure. Instead he let them attack. Meyer came at him fast, intending to body check and knock him to the ground, I think, while Heinrich would follow through from above, maybe with his boots. That's the way it appeared to start. And here's what I think I saw. Meyer never reached him with that body check. Sergeant Zim whirled to face him, while kicking out and getting Heinrich in the belly -- and then Meyer was sailing through the air, his lunge helped along with a hearty assist from Zim. But all I am sure of is that the fight started and then there were two German boys sleeping peacefully, almost end to end, one face down and one face up, and Zim was standing over them, not even breathing hard.

"Jones," he said. "No, Jones left, didn't he? Mahmud! Let's have the water bucket, then stick them back into their sockets. Who's got my toothpick?" A few moments later the two were conscious, wet, and back in ranks. Zim looked at us and inquired gently, "Anybody else? Or shall we get on with setting-up exercises?" I didn't expect anybody else and I doubt if he did. But from down on the left flank, where the shorties hung out, a boy stepped out of ranks, came front and center. Zim looked down at him. "Just you? Or do you want to pick a partner?" "Just myself, sir." "As you say. Name?" "Shujumi, sir." Zim's eyes widened. "Any relation to Colonel Shujumi?" "I have the honor to be his son, sir." "Ah so! Well! Black Belt?" "No, sir. Not yet." "I'm glad you qualified that. Well, Shujumi, are we going to use contest rules, or shall I send for the ambulance?" "As you wish, sir. But I think, if I may be permitted an opinion, that contest rules would be more prudent." "I don't know just how you mean that, but I agree." Zim tossed his badge of authority aside, then, so help me, they backed off, faced each other, and bowed. After that they circled around each other in a half crouch, making tentative passes with their hands, and looking like a couple of roosters. Suddenly they touched -- and the little chap was down on the ground and Sergeant Zim was flying through the air over his head. But he didn't land with the dull, breath-paralyzing thud that Meyer had; he lit rolling and was on his feet as fast as Shujumi was and facing him. "Banzai!" Zim yelled and grinned. "Arigato," Shujumi answered and grinned back. They touched again almost without a pause and I thought the Sergeant was going to fly again. He didn't; he slithered straight in, there was a confusion of arms and legs and when the motion slowed down you could see that Zim was tucking Shujumi's left foot in his right ear -- a poor fit. Shujumi slapped the ground with a free hand; Zim let him up at once. They again bowed to each other. "Another fall, sir?" "Sorry. We've got work to do. Some other time, eh? For fun . . . and honor. Perhaps I should have told you; your honorable father trained me." "So I had already surmised, sir. Another time it is." Zim slapped him hard on the shoulder. "Back in ranks, soldier. C'pnee!" Then, for twenty minutes, we went through calisthenics that left me as dripping hot as I had been shivering cold. Zim led it himself, doing it all with us and shouting the count.

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