Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell created The Leader’s Bookshelf (reviewed here) by polling four-star generals and admirals on their recommended reading. Also in that volume are suggestions by junior officers. Among those books was Starship Troopers, but not The Forever War. Science fiction has no shortage of war stories but these two are often compared and contrasted.
As a writer, I like to think that I know good writing when I find it. In the stacks of my university library, I opened The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison to a random page. No way could I ever write that well. Every word was perfect. Similarly, my mother passed Herzog by Saul Bellow to my sister who left it for me. Clearly, it was Nobel material. But neither did I actually read either one: the subject did not grip me. Forever War did. So, did Starship Troopers.
Forever War has an ineffable quality of first person narrative that opens the book with a briefing and then puts you with the author in a field exercise in engineering, which is where Haldeman served. And that sense of experience continues, even though Joe Haldeman never jumped through a collapsar or wore a cybernetic fighting suit. Starship Troopers puts you in the hold of a ship and eventually an officer candidate school classroom. That was Heinlein’s personal experience aboard an aircraft carrier after graduating from Annapolis. Again, the writer was never in servo-controlled armor.
Where Heinlein tells, Haldeman shows. The Forever War is the better read. Culturally, writing styles changed. Heinlein sounds more like Mark Twain and was intended for pulp magazines. It is cerebral. The Forever War was written from perceptions, reflections, and feelings.
Where Starship Troopers followed the formula of a John Wayne movie, The Forever War is closer in spirit to Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. The theme of Forever War is the senselessness of war. The plot is the story of a conscript who rises from private to major through no special talents, but who is lucky enough to survive a few pyrrhic victories. The theme of Starship Troopers is the necessity of military defense. The plot is the story of a volunteer whose training allows him to survive a series of engagements from which his leaders learn valuable lessons. Starship Troopers is romantic. The Forever War is naturalist.
I suspect but cannot prove that many young officers in today’s military recommended The Forever War, just as they recommended Atlas Shrugged. The editors of The Leader’s Bookshelf (reviewed here) did not agree with the choice of Atlas Shrugged and therefore mischaracterized the book in their summary. The Forever War did not merit a mention.
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