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Attack Ships on Fire off the Shoals of Otago: Arguing about Starship Troopers

John Dolan

In a film genre course Thierry Jutel and I taught at the University of Otago in early 1998, we showed Verhoeven's film of Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers, and then argued at length about how to read the film: was Starship Troopers a genuine fascist anthem to the glories of intergalactic war, or a sendup of war propaganda (especially the Why We Fight infomercials of WW II)? The argument hit some sort of culture/media nerve which started yowling very loudly. Everybody in the course had their own fierce opinion, and a number of the essays which were written out of the context of those debates were superb. In this issue of Deep South you'll read some of those essays, and you can decide for yourself which analyst came closest to getting it right about this very odd film.

This sort of all-comers, no-prior-delimitations wrangle over meaning seems to be possible only in science fiction. SF is where we fight the big battles--those in which the issue is still in doubt. Here on Earth, all has been settled but your percentage of the gross; out there, a new life awaits you in the offworld colonies! Out there, nothing has been settled: Christian and Homeric ethics, glory and shame, slavery and drugs, spin soundless along all galactic axes. Science Fiction is the burning bush, the anglerfish's lure, all the worlds at once. All the worlds, including--oh yes, especially including--those which proper neo-Victorians find improper and have banished from this dull, weary "real life."

Because let's face it: this century which came in like a lion is ending like Philip K. Dick's mechanical lamb: in a mechanical tameness, an aluminium fleece, a false chewing of artificial cud. And they dare to call the literary celebrations of this cultural coma "realism"? And imagine it to be superior to SF? As Tacitus's offworld Chieftan said, "They make a desert and call it realism!" The self-policing annals of dullness--the endlessly replicated fictions of divorce, career, sexual awakening and autumnal pathos--are polemics for living death, still life made still stiller, still smaller. The New Yorker is J.F. Sebastian's weekly reading, the print equivalent of the friends he makes.

Science fiction alone survives. It spent a pulp century or so as a coyote in the hills of LA, hanging around university hospitals eating stray cats, used pacemakers and other medical waste along with anything else the culture didn't value--ie everything worth talking about. Now it's slunk down into H-wood and gotten rich, the whole deal with limos and movie offers; but its DNA is still that of a never-gagging, cheerful gourmet of carrion. It remains very wary of the Englightenment (well, not so much wary as bored); snoring at sermons, unimpressed with the 500-page journal entries which pass for high literature, untutored in virtue and --thank God, thank God--highly toxic to tenured Victorians.

And like all humanity before the Englightenment, SF is fascinated by war. Starship Troopers goes where all the war films have to go now: off-world. Not that war has stopped here; oh no. You can get just as dead under the aluminium hooves of artificial sheep as in the fangs of a wolf. But you're not allowed to celebrate it any more. It happens off-screen, deplored and funded under the table. The main point is not to think of it. Let it go on, dully and afar; but don't be dirty, don't think about it. That's the rule. It's touchingly enforced by poster hereabouts--have you noticed? Yeah: there are these posters around campus which demand that we "imagine a world without violence."

So OK, here I go, imagining a W w/o V...Hell yes, I can name that tune in one note: Middlemarch. A world w/o V. Absolutely unreadable. Tried that hulking theorisation of living death three times and couldn't make it past the first hundred pages.

Not that Middlemarch won't kill you; it's killed many people. But that was their fault; they were not imagining correctly. And so they were excised from the world But that wasn't "violence." No no no. Violence only happens offworld. (Til the Nexus-Sixes bring it home...)

I mean this literally: Middlemarch kills. I remember a telling incident from my postgrad days, which showed how the enforcers of the Middlemarch world did their non-violent assassinations. It was outright imaginary war: Middlemarch v. Videodrome. (An SF film, naturally.) And it resulted in something that I guess you'd have to call "violence": a friend of mine got fired from his job. For showing Videodrome. Because Videodrome was violence. Sexual violence. So his teaching assistant turned him in. Got him fired...but getting him fired--that wasn't violence. Wouldn't go into the police records as violence. Which is odd. Because it felt like violence. So if I imagine a world without violence, is my friend still fired?

Then, God help us all, there's the problem with, er, the other species. Because they just won't read Middlemarch, can't even get as far through it as I did. The Famine Queen herself would have a problem with some of these savages. Putting blouses on the native women is easy, but how do you get a Victorian frock on a Nile croc? How do you get a jackal to imagine along with John Lennon and U2? Disney had his Lion King subsist on insects--they're not alive, apparently--but I dare you to try convincing any actual lion of your acquaintance to pass up real meat (like, uh, you) in order to munch a log full of earwigs...I guess we could try to persuade the coyotes to leave those Beverly Hills cats alone...

But what if you like it that the coyotes eat the cats in Beverly Hills? What if the only way you can imagine liking those very expensive hills is with a beam of alien energy turning them into one big stucco pizza with extra smug surprise? What if you don't want the ancient interwoven horror (you know, that ship in Alien) untangled? What if you like the way it's tangled? Imagining new worlds, off-world worlds, with violence--new violence, interesting violence--is one of the jobs of SF. We may decide (as if we "decide" anything!) that Switzerland is a better place to live than some extrasolarian Somalia...but that blue-sun, red-sea ET Somalia will generate a lot better stories and pictures.

So SF--innocent and bloody as ever--tends to drift off toward new, cheery, bloodspattered offworld Somalias. Very naughty. And that naughtiness is why most academics--from port-sipping Augustans to Jamesonian left-fascists, from snoring Chairs to jargonspitting apprentices--hate and fear SF--or, if indulging their genetic predispostion to hedge their ideological bets, patronise only the very worst and tamest SF, such as Terry Gilliam's twee, smirking little films: because SF is raving live through a speed dream in a world committed to Victorian sobriety; because SF has, in Rutger's words, "...seen things you...people...can't imagine."

And remember what Rutger gave as his first example of the "things [those] people can't imagine": "Attack ships on fire off the shoals of Orion" No attack ships in Middlemarch. But offworld, in SF, the attack is in progress, the attack ships are burning, but still firing.Yes, you people: you people and your characters, your characters and their psychologies--nineteenth-century trash. Mainstream high literature is a reactionary drone, a wilfull closing of the eyes and ears, a retreat from space. We lie, nonstop, until we go offworld.

In an episode of Doctor Who, we see two snotty little kids in public-school uniform. One, grimacing in disgust and rage, says, "I've got to get out of here!" You think he means the school, and sympathise as he looks around at the bleak barracks. Then he adds, "I hate Earth!"