Important Thoughts About Starship Troopers

More on Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 handbook of civics and military organization.

Previous Starship Troopers post

Moral Philosophy as mathematics

I didn’t give enough evidence that what I previously called “mathematical morality”, and Heinlein calls “History and Moral Philosophy”, exists in the book, and that it’s a mathematical science.

Although History and Moral Philosophy appears several times, the best example of it as mathematics is when Rico attends Officer Candidate School. The History and Moral Philosophy instructor assigns Rico to prove something like: it’s acceptable to go back to war when one side retains even a single prisoner of war. History and Moral Philosophy is an exact science, according to the instructor, so a mathematical proof is possible.

I wonder what the non-human intelligences in Starship Troopers make of this kind of mathematical proof. We know of 2, the “Skinnies” and the “Bugs”. The Bugs are clearly a stand in for Cold War villains The Commies, but the Skinnies are a little more enigmatic. Rico goes on a mission where his unit does violence to a Skinny city, and later in the story, the Skinnies become allies to the humans. We know nothing of them other than this. Maybe the exact science of Moral Philosophy convinced them that the socialist Bugs were the bad guys in the war.

Heinlein apparetly didn’t understand symbolic logic at all well. One rough summary of Godel’s incompleteness results is: inside axiomatic systems, there are true statements that aren’t provable. The proof that Rico is supposed to produce may not be possible.

What if Moral Philosophy is akin to Lambda Calculus, or Set Theory? Each of those phrases names a family of axiomatic systems, sometimes with corner cases that are surprising, like the Banach-Tarski Paradox, or having more than 1 ur-element. Which axiomatization of Moral Philosophy should Rico produce his proof in?

It’s also possible that in the universe of Starship Troopoers, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem isn’t true. That could be why humans in the book have faster-than-light travel.

Heinlein had an engineer’s understanding of mathematics, which isn’t too surprising given his education. That brings us to my second elaboration.

Armored Suits

In 1959, digital computers were not all that important. Analog computers and devices like harmonic analyzers were maybe not commonplace, but important none-the-less. The armored suits are certainly envisioned as being analog, electromechanical, with synchros and gyros and analog negative feedback. Reading Starship Troopers today, when digital electronics are universal and pervasive, brings to mind an entirely different vision than Heinlein, a mechanical engineer educated in the 1920s, probably had.

My guess is that Heinlein had a kind of “dieselpunk” image of them. He was an officer on US Navy ships in the 1930s, and worked as a “civilain aeronautical engineer” during WW2. That’s the pinnacle of slide-rule engineering, and specialized mechanism design.

I recall being entranced by the MI’s armored suits on my first read of the book. My own engineering education and life experience has made them seem less and less realistic. What’s the energy source? Batteries? Internal combustion? Small nuclear reactor? Nothing seems to fit well, between the obvious high and bursty energy use, and the need to be portable. Here in the 21st Century, it seems possible to digitally do all the control algorithms such a suit would need, but I imagine that creating analog PID control loops would be arduous.

Two ideas fall out of this:

  1. Increases in popular knowledge about controls and energy sources lead to gigantic fictional armored suits, as in Japanese “mecha” stories.
  2. A dieselpunk movie of the development of Starship Troopers armored suits would be a lot of fun.

Armed Forces and moral superiority

The best thing in the book is that not only are Heinlein’s MI officers skilled, rose through the ranks rather than being aristocratic scions, and are deadly warriors, but this is a result of moral superiority. The Sky Marshall dies in combat on Klendathu, his last act is to throw an injured trooper on the escape vehicle. The Sky Marhsall is the best of the best, and he sacrifices his own life to save that of a lowly soldier.

Moral superiority leads directly to being a deadly warrior. We see this several times in the book, like when Rico and his recruit friends go on leave in Vancouver, get jumped by some local toughs, and absolutely dismember them. Rico and his friends are morally superior to the local deliquents, which leads to deadly hand-to-hand combat skills.

The concepts of “cognitive bias”, ergonomics, bounded rationality, and other biological and mathematical limitations on human thought hadn’t really had an impact on society in 1959, much less on Heinlein himself. If you couldn’t handle some large amount of simultaenous inputs, you were a moral failure. We get this message loud and clear when Rico describes his stint as a “3rd lieutenant”.

The converse of this is true in Starship Troopers too: if you died in combat (“bought the farm”) you lived forever in everyone’s heart as a morally superior being.