Full Metal Jacket with Bugs (minus the bugs)
This book is set in a futuristic society where mechanized warriors must pit their wits against the tide of alien arachnids threatening to claim every inhabitable piece of real estate in the galaxy-so they can eventually earn the right to vote. Sounds exciting doesn’t it? Men in power-armored suits which give them amazing super powers as they jaunt through space and engage these crafty insectoids that have no compunction against throwing a seemingly limitless supply of exoskeletons in their line of fire. All the while back on Terra (Earth) the indolent humans go about minding their corporate business interests as they ignorantly sniff their noses at these military-types whose warm bodies are the only thing keeping them safe. It takes a keen understanding of devotion to honor and duty, to make things right in a universe where the only notion that matters is understanding that every species has a mind to look after its own interest. Thrive to survive—be you man or bug.
I’m being a bit cynical of course, and the reason is that I felt this book spends the VAST majority of its time consumed with the nuances of active military life. We start following the protagonist from just before his enlistment and continue on as he earns his way through the ranks. However, there is really no interoffice politics or petty jealousy or even evil forces at work to prevent his eventual and satisfactory progression of titles. Heinlein was a military man in real life for a number of years, and the book benefits immensely from this. There is probably no better fictional book that can speed you through a fairly respectable military career in a very entertaining and oddly realistic way. The author gets us inside the protagonist’s head and we get to mull over all his worries and doubts as he climbs (or is pulled) through the ranks due chiefly to circumstance.
This book is frequently accused at having hidden (or not so hidden) political agendas, including being sort of a propagandist glorification of militarism. I personally don’t mind it. At times, the language might get a bit heavy-handed, but you see things from the protagonist’s thoughts and I felt like it was believable for the most part. Not that you might agree with all the conclusions reached, but that they fit with the character’s frame of reference. There is a place in the universe for honor, patriotism, duty and even militarism. These are interesting things to consider in the context in which they are set.
My biggest complaint is the lack of bugs. The book opens fast and right in the thick of what proposes to be an interesting futuristic war. However the beginning ends up feeling like a last minute edit thrown in at the protest of some market savvy editor. It just takes soooooo long to get back to this voracious alien-insect species. Maybe that’s for the best, because they are sort of something familiar being akin to intelligent ants. However, when we get to the bugs its very interesting and terribly short. Too short. I think seeing the movie might have ruined this for me. I saw it many years ago (and I’m going to rewatch it now for my podcast), but it may have tainted my reading. However, the opening section starts mid-combat and that would throw any reader off.
The bottom line is that I just couldn’t help having an expectation for more bugs. The whole while I’m reading about the protagonists trials and tribulations in the Mobile Infantry I couldn’t help saying to myself “Yes, yes, yes, and? Ok and? What about the bugs? Let’s get to the bugs?” I mean, its just a little hard to focus on this futuristic military because it’s not so different then I would think a military might be in modern times. But when you know that alien arachnids are attacking the planet and threatening invasion, you want to focus on THAT not all the military-speak. I think the militaristic ethics discussion would have been better served if there was more human/bug conflicts sprinkled through out and the military-speak more directly related to the war. But I guess that’s not really what this book is about.
So, I think you have to go into this book without the expectation that you are going to be delving into new worlds and cultures. It will be a new culture (for some people), but its going to be the culture of the human Mobile Infantry. An organization with traditions and beliefs as ancient and reverent as the armies from which it is descended. And this book is unique for that. It can even be lauded for that. Bounce on space marine!
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website: www.nodeodorant.com.