Saturday, November 05, 2016

Where No Movie Has Gone Before

A ridiculous article in The Hollywood Reporter about a potential remake of Starship Troopers.  I thought the original movie by Paul Verhoeven, released almost 20 years ago, wasn't bad.  It didn't do that well, actually, but the title is still well known so I guess the film industry figures there's money to be mined.  But the Reporter's Graeme McMillan warns the book has political problems that can make it a tricky adaptation:

Starship Troopers has been decried as promoting fascism and being racist in its creation of a society where democracy has been severely restricted and warfare against the alien "bugs" comes with its own coded terminology that hews too closely to real-world racism for many.

This is stupid for a number of reasons.  First, McMillan suggests that times have changed since the 90s, but, if I recall, promoting fascism and racism was highly unpopular back in the unenlightened days of the late 20th century as well.  (McMillan takes great pains to remind us he's in favor of greater sensitivity to such things--don't worry, Graeme, we don't think you're a bad guy, just a little dull.)  In fact, the Verhoeven movie, as even McMillan seems to understand, was a subversion of Heinlein's original novel, not so subtly making the "good guys" look like Nazis.

Second, what's with the "real-world" racism charge? The bad guys are bugs from another planet.  (So wouldn't it be "another-world" racism?) When you fight a war, you deal with the enemy you've got.  Humans have been fighting bugs in science fiction for generations, and unless they're specifically reminiscent of a particular group of people, they're just another enemy. (It should be noted the lead character in the book is a Filipino--rare today, but almost unheard of when it was published.)

Then there's the fascism charge.  This has been raised against Starship Troopers since it came out in 1959. In fact, Heinlein had to change publishers, even though he was a highly successful author of juveniles, because of this book.  But this shouldn't be seen as a problem with a new film, it should be seen as a reason to make it.  I consider the charge absurd, but the point is, the book isn't just another adventure novel, its an exploration of ideas.  That's what gives the story, and potentially the movie, a depth that much sci-fi is missing.

Starship Troopers, in fact, doesn't have much of a plot (which is the best reason not to make a film of it).  There's are some action sequences at the beginning and end (some of which Heinlein's publisher insisted on to shake up what they thought was a static story), but not much in the middle.  That's because this is a novel with a philosophy, and most of the narrative is taken up with a young man going through training to help him understand the meaning of some big ideas.

Heinlein's "fascist" idea is no one gets to vote in this society until they've performed public service.  The point is you shouldn't get the full rights of citizenship just because you're 18 and have a pulse--you have to earn it.  While I find this system unworkable--it works in the book, of course, but books are the only places where utopian visions work--it's hardly fascist.  It's Heinlein trying to challenge conventional views. (In fact, I would think it sounds pretty good to a lot of people--there are plenty who want to make public service a requirement in high school).  But even if it sounds hateful, the idea is to make you think about the meaning of citizenship, and how a civilization should function.

What's actually controversial, I suppose, is public service in the book mostly amounts to military service, though Heinlein claimed (outside the book) that would only be a small part of what people would do.  It's just that in the book Earth is fighting a war and that's where the story is set.

So make the movie, and don't be afraid of the ideas.  If they seem challenging, so much the better.  And this time, don't leave out the power armor.

The real question is why is Hollywood doing another Starship Troopers while it's never been able to get Stranger In A Strange Land off the ground?


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

LAGuy wrote:

What's actually controversial, I suppose, is public service in the book mostly amounts to military service, though Heinlein claimed (outside the book) that would only be a small part of what people would do. It's just that in the book Earth is fighting a war and that's where the story is set.

It's true that Heinlein stated this point clearly in an essay contained in his Expanded Universe. But I think it can be deduced from the novel itself; at one point someone says the war is a good thing, because before the war broke out, too many people were getting citizenship for non-military service.

That being said, the philosophical / psychological premise of the book (a successful republic requires a certain minimum amount of altruism on the part of the voters, and being willing to risk your life to defend others demonstrates altruism) doesn't really hold up if the franchise is largely given out to non-military folks.

The key part of his essay can be found here (scroll down to the words "I think I know" and read from there. Agree or disagree, I think that the fact that these questions aren't even debated today is disastrous for the future of our so-called democratic republics.

4:29 PM, November 05, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I agree we should at least have discussions about certain things relating to voting, but we can't because of how people take these discussions, based on ugly things in our past (especially how African-Americans were denied the right to vote even after being guaranteed it in the Constitution) and the fact that these issues split along partisan lines at present. (Both sides claim they're arguing out of principle, but they always manage to take the side that helps them at the voting booth.)

Still, Heinlein's plans simply wouldn't work. Even if you think people who put their lives on the line for their country would be more altruistic, and understand better than others what's best, I doubt that any group, no matter how allegedly smart or understanding, should own the vote. I just don't see how it wouldn't devolve to them doing what's best for them at the expense of others, even as they believed they were helping the country.

The only hope, I suppose, is to have a strong tradition of specifically protected individual rights and, in addition, have built-in checks and balances that make it hard to do anything big too easily. No system is perfect, but I'd trust one built along these lines more than others.

5:29 PM, November 05, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guarantee you one thing. If only veterans could vote, military pensions would be sky high.

6:04 PM, November 05, 2016  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I agree with your analysis, LAGuy. Allowing only a subset of people to vote might be fine, but that subset has to be meaningfully representative of the whole. In the ST world, you'd probably get military families and non-military families, and it would quickly turn into a class system (albeit a porous one). As Anonomyous pointed out, military families have certain financial interests that differ from civilians. They'd get great pensions, and health care too.

We have forgotten that the rule of law is the foundation of any just system. The Magna Carta didn't advance democracy very much, but it insisted that the courts be fair: the king and his judiciary were forbidden to "sell, deny, or delay justice". The Roman Republic understood this when it required that all laws be publicly posted so that all could know what they were.

The next layer is for people's rights to be declared and protected. (This is the second step: if the courts will not deliver justice, then a bill of rights is just a piece of paper.)

The third step is for the people to have some kind of control over the legislature. This is called "democracy" (either direct or indirect). This allows the laws to reflect the wishes of the people. But without the rule of law, laws are meaningless, and without the enumeration of protected rights, the majority becomes a tyranny.

But in the United States today, we have glamorized the voting franchise so much that we have forgotten that it's not the first step. We even imposed voting on Iraq without first establishing public order and the rule of law there. Pretty silly, if you ask me.

9:40 PM, November 05, 2016  

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