Thursday, August 4, 2016

Video Gaming Book Reports: Starship Troopers

When you think of video games it's doubtful you think of books, especially novels, at the same time. Video games after all are "the enemy of books and therefore their exact opposite" or so those of us of a certain age had our parents and teachers tell us. As we've gotten older we've actually learned a little different and have come to see that books have inspired many games, and vice-versa. Everything from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, to Frank Herbert's sci-fi Dune epics, to more modern Japanese graphic novels have guided video game designers in the mystery, sci-fi, horror, and even courtroom drama genres and beyond. 

But, for many gamers there is one novel that has both inspired and confounded simultaneously, that being Robert Heinleins Starship Troopers. For most of us we connect Starship Troopers with the 1997 film, supposedly based on the book of the same name by Robert Heinlein. To be honest it was a mediocre movie at best, and I never felt the need to see it more than once or read the novel it was based on. Over the past few years though the book itself has been a topic of conversation on more than a few gaming podcasts, as well as in some of my personal circles, and the one common thing I've heard has been "its nothing like the movie!". Obviously, not being a big fan of the movie that "it's nothing like the movie!" phrase was pretty promising. So when I ran across a copy in a used bookstore this summer I decided I would take a chance. I'm not going to call it the best work of science fiction I have ever read, but I will say it's easy to see why the novel has been so influential on other works of science fiction.




The Book Itself

The book is good in and of itself, but it is one of those true cases that the old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover", applies to. Yes, the book starts and ends with sci-fi combat action on an alien world, but whats in between, say a good 60% of the book, is even more interesting. Heinlein, a former US Navy officer seemed to pride himself on his knowledge of military and political history and philosophy, and pretty much used the book as a platform to state his own personal philosophies on these matters but against the backdrop of a future world. At times it can be a bit hard to push through, but keep in mind its actually a relatively short novel, and an interesting one at that.  As far as what your there for the novel doesn't disappoint when its does get into combat, and Heinlein's description of the mechanized "Mobile Infantry (M.I) suits" as well as their weapons and support roles is more than fascinating, as are his descriptions of spacecraft, and other planets. No doubt it's that kind of detail that has gone on to really inspire other science fiction, especially Halo's "ODST troopers", and Mechwarriors "Elementals" just to name a few.

Fallacy's About the Book

I feel the need to clear up a few fallacies I have had others tell me about the book:

First off the common urban legend is that the book is about the Vietnam War. The book was actually published in 1959 long before the U.S. deep involvement in Vietnam. Historically speaking Eisenhower was sending advisers into Vietnam at that time but there was no massive military occupation force as we would see in the late 60's. However, with that said Heinlein does throw the term "Police Action" around a few times, which leads me to believe he is indirectly referencing the Korean War which was called a "Police Action" by the U.N.

Secondly, I have heard "Heinlien uses the book as a platform for his atheistic beliefs". Ok, first of all no, and than no. At the beginning of each chapter Heinlein uses quotes from history and/or literature, and a few of them are from the bible. The last chapter itself starts out with four biblical quotes alone. Heinlein also references the bible, as well as religious tolerance a few other times within the novel. Don't get me wrong, its not like your going to get hit over the head with religion reading this, but your also not going to have to deal with atheism either. As far as Heinlein being an atheist himself, I'm not sure about that either, since philosophy of all types seem to be common in his novels. Like fellow sci-fi legend and creator Gene Roddenberry many seem to misunderstand his exact belief system although its agnostic if anything.

The Book vs The Movie: Why so Different?

The screenplay for the movie was inspired by Starship Troopers but initially had no direct connection. Originally, meant to be a B-movie (yes, MST3K fodder), the original title was Bug Hunt, however at some point the film rights to Starship Troopers where purchased from Heinlein's estate. Shortly after the awful Bug Hunt script was adapted to it, renaming characters in it to fit those of characters in the book. On top of that travesty the films director, Paul Verhoeven, had never actually read the novel all the way through, therefor not entirely getting the books general premise, and political themes. So when fans of the book finally got a movie adaptation in 1997 they where bitterly disappointed in what they got, a gory, nonsensical film filled with gratuitous violence, nudity, and sex. Essentially, the movie killed the book for years after, until just recently when many have been picking it up again to find something totally different.

The Starship Trooper Effect

As I said the book has had its influence on other works of science fiction, and we have seen bits and pieces of it creep up in other novels, comic books (*cough* Ironman), TV shows, movies, and of course video games. Now you would have expected that Starship Troopers at least get its own video games, especially after the 1997 blockbuster. Well, it did but not until 2000, and only in the form of an FPS PC game that not many knew about, although it was well reviewed. It did however receive a popular and well known pinball machine in 1997, one many consider to be among the best modern machines, but as in the case of pinball its more about gameplay than it is content. Despite the fact that Starship Troopers never really got top notch games, or spread like wildfire as a gaming franchise doesn't mean its influence, especially that of the book, hasn't been seen elsewhere. 



Halo (series) and Halo 3: ODST:

Halo's famous central hero "Master Chief" derives part of his power from his suit (yes, the one he never takes off). In the movie Halo: The Fall of Reach we are given John 117's back story, as well as told that only augmented Spartans have the strength to wear the special mechanized armor. This armor is highly reminiscent of the "M.I." armor, mentioned in Starship Troopers. 

In the Halo series we are also introduced to "ODST's" or Orbital Drop Shock Troopers usually USNC Marines. In Starship Troopers this is the standard way in which the "M.I." is deployed planet side in something called "capsules", giving Johnny Rico and his fellow soldiers the name "Cap Troopers". In the Halo series these "capsules" are called "pods" and the soldiers who usually use them "ODST's", but the results are generally the same dropping behind enemy lines and creating a beachhead like space-born paratroopers. 

Mechwarrior and Command & Conquer:

I won't attribute the concept of the Battlemech to Starship Troopers but you have to admit the giant fighting robot concept is a gigantized version of the "Mobile Infantry". As previously mentioned though individual fighting suits that more or less beef up and individual soldier, much like Heinlein's version of  "Mobile Infantry", do appear and are known as "Elemental's". The soldiers themselves who wear the suits are known for being extremist, and zealots, and attack large Mechs like bees. Part of their backstory comes from the actual Mechwarrior books and games, and certainly paints them as over the top versions of "Mobile Infantry".

In the Command & Conquer universe "Mobile Infantry" suits, and space dropped military units first appear, in the original games sequel Command & Conquer: Tiberium Sun. A basic vehicular unit called a "Wolverine", is essentially a "Mobile Infantry" suit for a single soldier. To the best of my knowledge the "Wolverine" is the only playable game unit that seems to best fit Heinlein's description of the "Mobile Infantry" suit in his book, as small self contained and armed suits. The only thing really missing is are the jump jets, and the fact that they get picked off quickly. The "Wolverine" however wouldn't be the first or last such suit in the C&C franchise. Also, if you read Starship Troopers you will see "Wolverine" used a few times.

Ironman

Developed in 1963, and appearing in comics, cartoon shows, TV shows, movies, and video games Ironman is part of Starship Troopers legacy. Essentially, Ironman can be described as the best example of what Heinlein described "Mobile Infantry"as being. However in Starship Troopers, such suits act as part of a military unit, being operated by highly disciplined soldiers a far cry from Tony Stark, but a pretty close approximation to the Ironman character "War Machine" that is manned by United States Air Force Major James Rhodes.

Of course I could go on listing various works the book influenced, whether directly and indirectly but ultimately that will become clear as you read the novel. As a gamer and sci-fi lover I can't help but feel that Heinlein's novel of Starship Troopers is an essential for understanding the origins of a lot of ideas and concepts that have appeared in science fiction since.

I find it interesting that now days the most controversial thing about the novel of Starship Troopers is its complete difference with the movie. In its time Heinlein's views in the novel where enough to make his long time publisher refuse to add the book to its young adult line, and make him look elsewhere for a publisher for the novel. Although Heinlein shows an open disdain for Communism in the book, his pro-military, and military run government opinions where enough for him to be accused at times of being a radical and/or of supporting Fascist ideas. To be honest though the late 50's and early 60's where a huge era for science fiction writers who wanted to do more than just write another space age yarn. It was in this same era Frank Herbert would write Dune, a deep novel about politics, and ecology, it was also an era when Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C Clark, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury would write or build on some of their most famous works. This is even the same era in which Gene Roddenberry, and George Lucas would dream up the basis of their own science fiction futures. It was a time when sci-fi authors could leave behind Flash Gordon and explore real world issues against the backdrop of an alien world and/or some distant future. To us 50 to 60 years later the world(s) they have created in science fiction have become old hat, and the use of science fiction as a platform for ideals of one kind or another is something that is almost expected. When one picks up and Orson Scott Card novel for instance we expect to feel out some political or philosophical ideal the author wants to get across to us, and when we tune into the new Star Trek series next year we expect to see see more of the series morality plays the franchise has been come to be known for.



To me Starship Troopers is both a highly relevant and innovative novel, that has the unique pleasure of being a relic of science fictions past when authors first began to spread their wings and examine pressing social issues within the confines of a non-existent world. I'm glad to have read it and to allow the title Starship Troopers to redeem itself in the light of the 1997 film atrocity of the same name.     





   

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