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Reminder: Classic science fiction is not entirely made of fail May. 22nd, 2009 @ 10:00 am
So, this post by Avalon's Willow reminded me of certain things that are totally awesome about Starship Troopers. Which I obviously now need to fangirl publically, as well as including a couple of points that intrigue me as a writing-technique demonstration.

1) Girls In Space

It will elude no-one who's read any that a lot of classic sf is really kind of sexist. Robert Heinlein is, in fact, guilty of one of the most egregious examples of this I've ever read: his juvenile-audience novel Space Cadet is a study in No Girls Allowed. The female characters are seen for mere moments, in which they are stupid and emotional and incapable of understanding anything about maths or physics or space. The rest of the time, no-one even thinks about the absence of anything or anyone female in their lives. When I read it, I was a girl who loved space and was really, really good at maths (this was, you understand, not long before I had a severe head injury with intracranial bleeding that, among other things, caused me to lose the ability to do anything beyond basic arithmetic - and before that I was already very good at algebra and was poking at basic calculus). I liked the story, but I hated that aspect of it.

Whereas in Starship Troopers, it's accepted as a given that all the best space pilots are women. Piloting isn't a job for men - it just isn't, they can't do it as well as women can. Men do other things. Fighting on the front lines is a job for men and not women, because Heinlein always was clear that even if a woman can fight - and in his later books, he was firmly convinced that they could - it is a man's job to try and see that she doesn't have to, because women are the bearers of children and therefore are essential to the continuation of the species. A woman defending her children will be fiercer than a man could ever be, too, but that shouldn't happen.

I can get on board with a view that sees men and women as different, but neither one as lesser - I do, in fact, think there are some fundamental, inherent differences between men and women on average. e.g. Men, on average, are stronger - but that doesn't mean all men are stronger than all women. That's patently untrue. But the average is there. Which is why I still believe that all things should be decided on individual merit, because what's true on average isn't really the point, on an individual basis. But I digress.

The female character who gets the most "screen" time (not much, it's true) is Carmen Ibanez, a friend of Johnnie's who's also a hotshot pilot-in-training, brilliant as well as beautiful and a seriously nice person. Carmen is awesome.

Where this becomes an interesting point of writerly technique: Heinlein clearly wanted to bust some stereotypes in this book. Which means his few female characters had to have room to include being really really brilliant - but that, does it not, risks the problem of a character seeming all too perfect.

He gets around this really neatly, because the book is from Johnnie's perspective. And Johnnie's perspective on Carmen is that she's his friend, and he loves her, and he thinks she's brilliant and also lovely, in character and looks. That is what's clear to the reader. It's not that she doesn't have her own life, it's not that she's flawless - it's just that Johnnie is the one who's telling us about her, and why would he be taking time out from the story he's telling, his own story, just to make a point of telling you the bad points about his friend, his friend he loves and respects and admires? Carmen isn't perfect, she's just good, and the narrator has no reason to say anything bad about her, so he doesn't.

Similarly, other pilots and ship's captains he meets, the things he tells us about them are positive, because these are women he believes merit his respect, and in some cases outright admiration, so he isn't saying bad things about them because he has no call to do so. You get the sense that they're people - but his interactions with them are professional. So what we hear about Yvette Deladrier, say, is that she's a brilliant pilot and an excellent ship's captain. It's what we should hear - exactly the same things that Johnnie would tell us about any other military officer with whom he has interacted on a strictly professional basis.

You don't have to make a character visibily flawed to make them realistic - so long as their unalloyed brilliance is appropriate to the narration.

2) The Whole World Is Not White America

There's a distinct thread of Americanisms in the book, but I find that largely okay, what with the thing where Hollywood took over the world anyway. But throughout the book, the characters are multi-ethnic. Note that I said ethnic, not just racial. You have a couple of recruits who are German, and one of them doesn't speak "Standard" yet. You have a Japanese recruit - who's an expert in karate, which seems less stereotyped, somehow, when Sergeant Zim queries whether he's any relation to the karate master who taught him when he was in army training, and it turns out that he's the kid's father. And besides, along the way, they also learn savate - a recognition that martial arts aren't some mysterious Asian thing, there are martial arts that came from other places too.

For most of the book, cultures of origin are less important for almost every character than the fact that what they are now is M.I. But their names come from a wide range of cultures. They're the army of Earth, not of any one country.

And then, near the very end, in this book in which you're very much meant to identify with the narrating protagonist, this 1959 book aimed at the white male-dominated audience of science fiction readers... it turns out that Johnnie's native language is Tagalog.

He's Filipino.

The character with whom the reader is supposed to identify isn't white.

Sure, we already knew, technically, that his real name was Juan Rico. But everyone calls him Johnnie, and anyway, we also knew well before we found that out that he grew up rich and privileged. It'd be easy for someone who wanted to to think of him as Spanish-descended, or something - still basically white.

But he isn't. He speaks Tagalog, a language that does not belong to Europe or the Americas at all.

3) The King of the Straw Men, But Still

It's also an extended political essay. Yes, a lot of it is wrong, and yes, he sets up straw men and predicates his reformed society on the assumption that the society he was critiquing had already collapsed completely. It's still interesting and thought-provoking.

4) Plus, It's A Really Cool Story

If you haven't read it, do so. But don't watch the movie.
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