I was surprised by how much I liked this actually. It's not at all what I was expecting, especially after seeing the film first. This is not silly space opera. It's not a teenaged gore-fest with foul language, nudity and gratuitous sex. It's an intelligently constructed coming of age story and social commentary. I know...right?
Starship Troopers tells the story of Juan Rico's big decision to enlist in Federal Service on a futuristic, united planet Earth. In the world of Starship Troopers, only people that enroll and finish a term of service in the military get citizenship and all the rights thereof. Heinlein does a wonderful job exploring the morality of government systems and provides an interesting discussion on the validity of the American system in a way that's not pedantic, but fun, especially given the imaginative world he constructs it in. Rico's main source of inspiration is a high school course called "History and Moral Philosophy," a required course for all seniors and a course in which no one receives a grade. I think the most interesting figure in the whole story is the instructor of this course, Mr. Dubois. The conversations, examined in various flashbacks as Rico goes through boot camp and adjusts to military life, explore various themes, from civic virtue to militarism and the nature and causes of juvenile delinquency.
What's amazing is that the broader war against the "bugs" (why is humanity constantly in danger from insect species?) is totally in the background. It's almost irrelevant, and when it's mentioned, it's mentioned in passing, until near the end. Rico's development as a leader and his growth into manhood is the focus of the story itself. I think modern readers may find his development a little shallow at first. There's no moral or spiritual awakening, no thought that war is wrong, no commentary on how horrible a militaristic society is or how a life in the military could lead to the suppression of compromise skills and lead to aggressive tendencies (It was published in 1959 after all - and the market for anti-war themed novels was probably not as heavy as it is today). Rico becomes the stereotypical 1950s man, tested in warfare, unafraid of leadership, and caring of his family (of troopers at least).
Well worth the read just for the History and Moral Philosophy sessions.