One way of looking at the ‘giants’ of science fiction is to see them as people who helped map out the conceptual space of the genre. The impact of past writers is often so much greater because we can associate easily types of stories with the prototypes that they created. That is not to suggest that modern writers are unoriginal, just that the broad spaces already have names attached to them. Nor is it that those ‘giants’ where even necessarily the first writers to map out the space, often they loom large in our minds because they were authors we encountered when we were younger or authors that our favourite writers cite as influences.
For me as a youthful reader it was Le Guin and Philip K Dick. Le Guin’s apparently uncanny ability to have written books that appealed to me at different ages still amazes me. P.K.Dick was more a case of a weird happenstance but I’ll tell that story another time. Learning later in life that they both attended the same school at the same time but didn’t know each other, still feels like one of those cosmic coincidences that must be loaded with some deeper significance.
Robert Heinlein I read mainly because I started reading science fiction more broadly and was intentionally looking for ‘classics’ of the genre. Stranger in a Strange Land was OK and I tried some others but I didn’t warm to them. Later, delving into the online world I was surprised to see that for many people Heinlein was THE ONE, the singular biggest shaper of how they engaged with science fiction. Partly that was encountering online American libertarians for the first time many of whom had a deep love for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I was surprised they didn’t have more love for P.K.Dick though, whose work is permeated at every level with a deep distrust of authority.
Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is just one point in the complex politics of his overall work. You can’t assess his politics on one novel, particularly given the length of his career and the complex dialogue of ideas between his books. You can see his works as being politically contradictory but at the same time those multiple strands and tensions reflect many of the same strands and contradictions within broader centre-right and libertarian politics within America. Stranger, Moon, Trooper work almost as a kind of astrological sign for strands of ideas about post-War liberty in the USA. P.K.Dick’s stories are more mercurial in plot but the question of liberty within them is much more singular: they are out to get you and they probably already have got you.
Starship Troopers maps out a template for war stories. War stories were not new obviously but Troopers helps codify a kind of war story but in a science fiction context. The arc goes from recruitment , to basic training, to career and it is one that has played out in non-science fiction stories before and many science fiction stories since. As a structure it provides ways for writers to innovate in other ways. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War in particular follows many of the same story beats but for a quite different impact.
What if though, Philip K Dick had written Starship Troopers? Or rather what if Heinlein had started writing it and after making a start Dick had taken over?
Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade certainly starts as if it is an answer to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. There are multiple points including the nature of citizenship in the future Earth she sets out. Of course, the obvious inequities of the corporate society she describes suggest that the book will be more like Haldeman’s own war epic — it’s own story but also an answer to and a critique of Heinlein’s.
Dietz is a young woman* who enlists in the aftermath of a massive atrocity against Earth by ‘aliens’. The ‘aliens’ are breakaway Martian colonists who have become so seperated from Earth that their appearance and culture is utterly different. Dietz will also gain citizenship by enrolling which will help move on from the lower class ‘resident’ status of her family. The story follows her on basic training where we meet other members of her squad with whom she bonds in the face of the brutal reality of learning to be soldiers.
The massive tactical advantage the Earth corporations have over the Martians is access to a form of teleport technology. Soldiers are changed at a quantum level so that they de-corporealise into light and then re-corporealise onto a battlefield. This process is not without danger though, sometimes soldiers have a ‘bad jump’, other times they corporealise into ground or parts of buildings killing them horribly. War is hell but it is for a just cause…which as astute readers we naturally doubt. Even so, the arc of this story is set as it leads up to Dietz’s first jump.
But this is not a story in a dialogue with Heinlein and the arc is far from set. This is a conversation with Dick and Vonnegut and Le Guin. None of what Hurley establishes at the start can be trusted as Dietz discovers as soon as she makes (or doesn’t make) her first drop.
Dietz’s life becomes its own battlefield: disorientating, punctuated by violence and sudden moments of stillness. Dietz is the archetypal lost soldier looking for their platoon amidst a world blasted out of recognition. In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim’s solution to his predicament caused by (and reflected by) war is an extreme fatalism in the face of his extraordinary situation. Hurley’s story takes a different direction. Dietz may be lost but the story shows us how she can eventually take control and set her own destiny.
It is a far more optimistic book than the broader dystopian setting suggests. Yes, it is set on an Earth ravaged by disaster and controlled by dysfunctional corporations fighting a brutal and often pointless war but amid that Dietz finds good people and in the end a clear purpose.
Time, will and identity fight each other throughout as Dietz searches for answers about herself, her friends and the war she is trapped in. This is a story that puts it central character through appalling situations but gives the same character a powerful voice.
Easily the best book I’ve read this year.
*[I think – late in the book we found out her first name is Geena. I listened to the audiobook version and so just assumed she was a woman but I’m not sure the story actually identifies her gender]