Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers paperback jacket art by Paul Lehr
Every three or four years, I'll pick up a book from the library on the Great Pacific War, that portion of WWII that involves Japan. I do it for a number of reasons, but I suppose one reason it is a way to live a part of my father's life vicariously. He served in the latter part of the war on a LST, or, in Navy parlance, Large Slow Target.

The book I'm reading now is The Conquering Tide by Ian W. Toll. It's a good book, and I find myself picking it up and reading it over all the many other things I really ought to be doing. I'm currently up to the amphibious invasion of Kwajalien in the Marshall Islands, so that would be January of 1944, which is 72 years ago. There is still a year and a half of unadulterated viscousness still to go through before we bomb the crap out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (after we bomb the crap out of the rest of Nippon).

I'm constantly reminded throughout of how much Robert A Heinlein stole took the whole island-hopping-across-the-vast-Pacific campaign and turned it whole cloth into the novel Starship Troopers.

The Japs are bugs, vermin, aliens. Even the Korean slave labor are referred to by our Marines as 'termites'. Why, there is even an ultimate weapon at the end of the novel that fills in for the a-bomb: the Nova bomb, that "can crack planets like eggs".

The one thing that Heinlein doesn't have (and this is actually rather distinctive of the SF genre running well into the '70s at least) is the idea of modern warfare. It's all, well, basically, 17th century warfare. Ships and men. Ships and men. From Star Trek to Star Wars, its all sailing ships pummeling each other, and armies of men in formation pummeling each other. Classic cutting edge Napoleonic stuff, but not where our real wars have taken us. So why the reactionary romanticism? Well, it's an easier plot, with black and white characters.

What does Heinlein leave out from the Pacific War? Well, air power for sure. Radar, radio, and the inevitable command and control situation that appeared aboard carriers. And logistics. Holy shit. Logistics. You had more than just an immense baggage train of supplies behind the American Navy. Logistics went scientific. But who wants to watch the service machinations in Star Wars? Who wants to watch rooms full of women solving simultaneous linear equations, optimizing Markov chain decisions, with reams of paper at wooden desks? They barely made a tolerable historically inaccurate movie about just the code-breaking aspect in The Imitation Game, which was just an awful, manipulative ham-handed movie.

So, we got ships and mechanically enhanced men in the 22nd century, zooming around the galaxy, but it's still the 17th century at least. How would Heinlein include the arms race of air power (planes and their platforms, and their service and support ships), and air defense (anti-aircraft, radar, and command and control)? The only thing Heinlein could have done would have been highly unscientific.

He would have to include angels and demons, ghosts and angry spirits in his novel. That's what air power was back then. Avenging angels from on high, or demons harassing men below. Ghosts (as the Japs did with night attacks) invisible until they strike. There is no corresponding allegorical agent Heinlein could have used. Except one which he would found have unpalatable. Some kind of trans-human superhero.

Air power. One thing that struck me in the Conquering Tide was an account of a pilot who was shot up, forced to parachute into the water, resigned to being at sea for days or weeks, but instead picked up by a destroyer and returned to his carrier in time for lunch.

Let's walk through this. He's flying a Grumman F6F Hellcat, an incredible machine compared to the flimsy planes prior to WWII. It's armored, it's powerful, it's deadly.

It's a monster.

And he pilots this mechanical monster until he is shot down by another mechanical monster. And then he rescued by a still more enormous mechanical monster, and delivered back to his still even more enormous mechanical mother monster, to be fed like a pupa until his next monster hatches out of the bowels of his metal mom and he climbs in and pilots that some more.

And now I wonder, is the 17th century model when mechas got started? Or do we go all the way back to the 6th century BC, Art of War stuff? Or before? Mechas, of course, are giant anthropomorphic robots piloted by people. Usually one person pilots it, but there may be more servicing an even larger  mecha. It's the juggernaut. The Nautilus with Captain Nemo. A sailing ship, with a hierarchy of men crewing it as one, is a holistic monster. Ships predate nation states and city states, but that nautical first instance seems to be the model. Which, via the mecha, gets us to Heinlein's trooper in powered and armed exoskeleton suits.

But no real monsters. I wonder if this is part of the reason I make the art I make. I know I talk about monsters a lot, but we sure do seem determined to create them. Almost a compulsion.

Bees make honey.
Ants make roads.
Men make monsters.


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