After a while, a novelty becomes part of the landscape

The other day, I lent a pair of books to a co-worker, continuing our interpersonal-library-loan system that has sprung up during the past couple of weeks.

(I haven’t figured out why, but you always seem more likely to read something has let you borrow than what you own already.)

The two books — “Starship Troopers” (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein and “The Forever War” (1974) by Joe Haldeman — aren’t exactly great literature in form, but you can argue they are in achievement.

“Troopers” is a classic and essentially a must-read of military sci-fi because all of the armored battle suits you see running around in books, film and video games can more or less trace their lineage back to that one work. Even other military sci-fi, like Warhammer 40K and James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986), borrow heavily from “Troopers,” in terms of language and futuristic militaristic culture.

All of the fiction you’ve seen involving humans in powered exoskeletons battling prolific and inscrutably-minded insect empires in space are just reinterpretations of “Starship Troopers” in the same way 90 percent of the fantasy work of the past 70 years has been reinterpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series.

(You may remember or at least be aware of the 1997 film adaptation by Paul Verhoeven, but that’s about as related to the book as the 1967 Peter Sellers version of “Casino Royale” is related to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel. )

Heinlein’s “Troopers” is good as pure action-adventure and has aged pretty well, while the pseudo-fascist military culture he endorses hasn’t quite so much.

“Troopers” more or less says war is good, democracy is stupid but the military is efficient, and soldiers love to fight. It’s based on Heinlein’s experience in the Navy in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s.

Haldeman’s “The Forever War” is a response to this, and Haldeman was drafted and served in Vietnam in the late ‘60s. It says, war is often done for bad motives, democracy would be nice to have, the military is often inefficient and fighting isn’t much fun for anyone, but especially conscripts (in fairness, Heinlein’s hypothetical military was all-volunteer).

“Forever” is actually set beginning about what is now 15 years in the past, and hasn’t worn as well in some ways. As example, of all the slang Haldeman might have guessed would go out of favor from the ‘60s, he picked “cool” for some reason.

The enemy in “Forever” isn’t spelled out until the very end of the book, just because no one understands who or what they are, but the main focus of this work of military sci-fi isn’t the battles (the main character is neither especially heroic nor especially competent); it’s the effect that war and being away from home has on a person. The title, “The Forever War,” is primarily a reference to how the book spans 1,100 years, one of the earliest to try to realistically factor relativity into a plot: if you travel very fast through space, you personally travel very slow through time.

And the guy I’d lent these two books enjoyed them, but said he wished he’d them earlier because he’s read other books that were written after and were affected by them, which he could see now. The latter works of the “Enders Game” series by Orson Scott Card were specifically brought up (it’s a Bug War against an enemy humans don’t understand, and then time dilation becomes a plot device).

Rereading both upon their return, I noticed they really don’t seem that radical or impressive now, having read so many things since that sounded just like them.

And, really, that makes them even more impressive.

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