I first read this as a teenager and again in my early twenties as I slowly accumulated all of Heinlein’s books from used bookstores. This is probably the first time in something close to twenty years I’ve picked the book up.
I’m glad I did.
This is not an action-adventure military SF tale, much as the title and the cover would want you to believe otherwise. Sure, there’s some of that, but it’s not the primary story, which is the exploration of a particular kind of societal construct through the eyes of someone who grew up under its influence.
You see the word fascist thrown around a lot in reviews, but I’m not certain fascist is the right word to describe the thought experiment society Heinlein presents in this book. Authoritarian seems closer to the mark to me. “A form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms” versus “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.” There are political freedoms, but only for full citizens, those who have served the state for a minimum two-year term.
The state in this case seems to create a two-tier system: military and civilian. Except that there’s really three tiers: citizens, military, civilians. The civilians have lots of freedom and lots of rights and basically live in a civilized western nation with all of the comforts they could ask for, but they don’t get to vote or influence public policy in any way. That’s a hard-earned privilege held only by citizens, and you can only become a citizen through military service.
And there’s the problem some people seem to have with it. Clearly, having a military is a necessary evil, but liking the military is just plain wrong. So this has to be one of the worst books ever written unless you’re a super-conservative, militaristic pig who thinks that western imperialism is not just the best path, but the only path. <Sarcasm readings are off the scale, Captain.>
The basic driving force of the extrapolated society is quietly presented in a flashback chapter to Morals class in high school: man has no moral instinct and the basic instinct to survive must be cultivated and shaped into what society needs. All according to a scientific theory of morality, of course. From there, it’s a short trip to duty, corporal punishment, and life molded around the state.
The power in the book is in its presentation. We start off with Johnnie making a combat drop as a corporal and get the military SF battle sequence with all kinds of neat ways of blowing things (and aliens) up. It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s awesome.
But that’s just setting the scene that there’s a war going on. The more important parts of the narrative start in the past. We learn how he got to be that corporal at that moment on that drop. We get bits of high school and family life and basic training and initial combat drops. Later, we also get officer candidate school.
Piece by piece, step by step, Heinlein lays out the philosophy that brought society to this point and some of the history that helped it along the way. He makes use of well-placed authority figures, political events, lectures, personality clashes, and a fairly masterful execution of the Socratic method on more than one occasion.
Heinlein isn’t giving us personal views, though he did have a military career, so I can’t rule out there being some of that, but I also have to look at the rest of his writing and see the military isn’t always the good guys or even relevant to the story. He isn’t trying to show that the military is the best way to learn proper values and respect for society, even though that can almost be seen as an argument in the book. Almost. He isn’t advocating a militaristic society where we all march in step and do as we’re told.
He’s extrapolating an idea and building a society and a story around it. And it’s a story that will make you think about things. Just the kind of story I like.
Overall rating: 4.5 stars on the Goodreads scale. Lots of big ideas and philosophy to chew on, a character who’s far more interesting than you’d think at first blush. And, considering the time he was written in, it’s kind of a nice shock to find out that while he was raised in Argentina, his native language is Tagalog, making him Filipino. In 1959.
As an added bonus, you also reach the end of the book with a new appreciation of just how horrible the movie adaptation is.
Be well, everyone.by