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More A Political Treatise, Than a Sci-Fi Thriller
on 24 January 2015
I think it's inevitable when writing a book that was adapted into a very successful film to draw comparisons between the two. A common criticism of films adapted from books are how much of the original novel the miss out of the final movie, but this is mostly because a book that may take many hours to read, is difficult to condense into a 90-120 minute movie. This book isn't different to the movie because there's a hell of a lot missing, it's different to the movie because the book is more a political treatise than a sci-fi action novel. I have only recently read the book, but having seen the film many times over the years, I went into it with certain expectations.
Set in a utopian future in an unspecified time period, America has collapsed, humanity has spread out into the galaxy and is colonising planets, yet this society is militaristic, a society in which you can only gain 'citizenship' and the right to vote by signing up to military service. This world and the future in which it is set may be vibrant and intriguing, but the majority of the book was more about politics and philosophy than it was about Juan "Johnnie" Rico, the book's protagonist and the person whose first person perspective lends us the narrative framework for the story.
The story tells of how Rico signed up to the military with his best friend Zim and of his experience training, going to war, and rising through the ranks. This story, however, plays second fiddle to Heinlein's political and philosophical ideas. Told from the perspective of what Rico learned from his teacher, the respected, Mr. DuBois, there are lengthy chapters which seem to drift off into a philosophical arguments about human rights, political ideologies and the human condition. These are really interesting and to genuinely have you thinking, but I found myself also frustrated at reading these lengthy segments that I didn't really feel added anything to the story.
The relationships between Rico and his friends, family and fellow soldiers were all alluded to and nothing more. I never got the sense I really understood Johnnie as a character or what drove him to do the things he did or what really made him what he was. Arguably the best chapter of the book was when Heinlein actually stepped away from the philosophy and got to the action and drama in the final chapter of the book, but even then everything came across as quite shallow. Any threat Rico and his crew may have faced didn't seem important because Rico himself wasn't really that well developed as a character. I simply didn't care, and that's the book's major downfall.
In the midst of this great war between humans and alien 'bugs' I found myself thinking "So this Heinlein guy is pretty cool with the idea of fascism". It was a good read, even if it wasn't what I was expecting, but I would advise you look elsewhere if you want a legitimate sci-fi novel rather than a political thesis masquerading as such.