History isn’t my strongest point. But that doesn’t stop me from having an opinion, however ignorant.
I was reading this book in some high school class when a fellow student saw my reading it and asked to borrow it. When he gave it back to me his only comment was that the novel was “clearly propaganda against the anti-Vietnam war movement”. I opened the book to the information page and found the original publication date of 1959. I didn’t buy that this kid actually held that opinion, nor am I convinced of the opinion itself. That I know of, the anti-Vietnam sentiment didn’t really get into full swing until some time later. But that’s the uncomfortable thing about Reading Heinlein. People’s opinion’s come before the actual reading1. Many of these opinions are largely uninteresting.
What was actually interesting to me was to what extent this full length novel seemed to be missing so much of what we consider to be fundamental to novels. There is no antagonist to be found anywhere in this story, nor is there anything resembling an over-arching conflict. That kind of makes the story a little bit boring. The story follows ‘Johnny’ Rico as he joins the Federal Service right out of high school, seemingly for the wrong reason. He is placed, against his will, into the mobile infantry and then the rest of the story follows his military career. He seems to do rather well in the military, although it is hard to establish why when one considers that nothing the character does seems to show interest in the mobile infantry, or initially resonate with the values of the military. So what we get is a bildungsroman where we watch a person gradually be molded into success by the luck of his circumstances, something that seems off considering Heinlein’s Rand-esque libertarian views on the value of individual in society. And that last sentence is my contribution to the pile of uncharitable interpretations of Heinlein. You’re welcome.
But there is some fun (at least, for weirdos like me) in reading this book with the controversies in mind. On the one hand, this book is accused of being racist by many scholars. Samuel Delany, on the other hand, finds the way the main character’s ethnicity is all but completely ignored throughout most of the book to be delightfully progressive. There are strong notions in the book that have been labeled by scholars as being fascistic, but in an era where more and more corporations are paying nothing in taxes, I am starting to wonder if an idea of people paying dues to the state might not be due for a renaissance. There is a lot of philosophy in this book, much of it bad, but all of it interesting. This book has been called Utopian, but it is so only by fiat, not be any merit of the book.
Robert Heinlein is the Rorschach Test of science-fiction. And that is certainly a merit.
1Fun fact – A Heinlein scholar disagrees with Heinlein himself about the correct interpretation of the novel. Now what would Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes have to say about this?