Starship Troopers vs. Old Man’s War: A Comparison

October 11, 2013 Features 1

by Reynold Starnes

Since first published in 1959, Starship Troopers, several later novels have been compared to it, including but not limited to,  Haldeman’s The Forever War, Gunn’s Death’s Head, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.  Examining the similarities and differences between Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War provides insights into both.

Authors Background and Comparison

Robert Heinlein was a twentieth century man.  He was born in 1907 and died in 1988; he was a part of, and influenced by, major events of the century.  He graduated from  the U.S. Naval Academy and served on the first purpose built U.S. aircraft carrier under Captain Ernest King, who as Admiral King led the U.S. fleet in the Second World War.

Heinlein had strong and determined political views, although they evolved over his life.  He was an active supporter of socialist Upton Sinclair’s campaign for the Governor of California in the 1930’s; later he was active in supporting conservative Barry Goldwater’s bid for the Presidency in 1964.

Heinlein is a large figure in Science Fiction literature.  His novels won four Hugo awards, and he was named the first Science Fiction Writers Grand Master.  Heinlein coined many words and phrases which entered the public lexicon.

His first success as a writer came as the author of juvenile sci-fi.  Starship Troopers is written at the transition to adult fiction.  He purportedly interrupted the writing of Stranger in a Strange Land to pen Starship Troopers in response to nuclear pacifism.  His novels almost always have exposition which set forth his view of the world and correct behavior.  During his lifetime he was often controversial and iconoclastic.

John Scalzi was born in 1969; he is a person of the internet age.  He graduated from The Webb Schools of California and the University of Chicago.  He has worked as film critic and columnist for print media and later as an in-house editor and writer for AOL.  Since 1998, he has been an author and blogger. Old man’s War first appeared in on-line form before it was published by Tor.

Scalzi is known for his liberal viewpoint and a frantic iconoclasm as seen in his popular blog, Whatever. He has been known to upload photo-shopped, monster-like, images of himself to his Wikipedia entry.

Scalzi has been nominated for several and has won one Hugo award.  Scalzi was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 2010 to 2013.  He thanked Heinlein in the acknowledgements of Old Man’s War.

Starship Trooper’s – Old man’s War Comparison

It is clear Scalzi used Starship Troopers as a template for his novel.  Each book is written in the first person and is the story of a lone ‘foot’ soldier and his journey through recruitment, training, and combat to the point where each protagonist becomes a proficient soldier that rises to officer status.

Each book is set in a future where humans must contend with an inimical universe where interstellar conflict and combat are required to preserve the fate of the human species.

In Starship Troopers, the hero is Johnnie Rico.  He lives in a society where suffrage is earned through service.  He comes from a well-off family that are, at first, upset that he goes into the military; specifically the Mobile Infantry (MI).  There are several alien species in his universe, the chief enemy being the ‘Bugs’, a hive-oriented arachnoid species who are expansionist and, unprovoked, have attacked Earth.

John Perry, the hero of Old Man’s War, lives in a society where the soldiers come from volunteers 65 years old, who leave the earth forever to protect a large network of colonies as part of the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF).  In this universe, there are many, many species, including humans, who fight over worlds to populate.

Both Rico and Perry are future infantrymen.  They each face similar challenges and overcome them in their stories; although how they do so is driven by their character and the authors’ different personalities.

The remainder of this comparison discusses three differences between the novels, and one similarity which is also has differences.

The enemy in Starship Troopers is a faceless species, perfectly communistic, who are bent on domination.  Heinlein wrote the book at the height of the Cold War, and he pictures the human society in the book that is based on individual responsibility.  Humans are leading a coalition against the Bugs.  In Old Man’s War, Scalzi gives a future where there are many species, including humans, who struggle over a limited resource – habitable worlds, although it is true some of the aliens find humans tasty.  Humans are just one species among many, and they are not the most advanced.

The story in Old Man’s War is a more personal story than is Rico’s in Starship Troopers.  The central issue is Perry’s love for his deceased wife and the romantic pursuit of her clone. This book is the first of several in a series.  Starship Troopers has much more exposition of Heinlein’s social views given through ancillary characters, especially his high school “History and Moral Philosophy” instructor.  This is a required course every student must take, although grades do not matter.  The instructor is a former member of the MI. Starship Troopers is a stand-alone novel.

While there are women in Starship Troopers, and while there are those in the military, there are none in the Mobile Infantry.   In Old Man’s War, women are in the CDF as ground fighters.

Each of the books’ main characters, as infantrymen, is wedded to the Rifleman’s Code, adjusted to technology of a science fiction novel.  This is a defining similarity.  However, the technology of each is determined by the technology of the times in which the author wrote.  In Starship Troopers, the combat suit is central – this is hardware-driven technology.  The critical technology of Old Man’s War is more biological.  Each elderly volunteer is given a new, superhuman body in which to fight.


While Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War are similar stories, Scalzi certainly intended them to be so, they have considerable differences.   In addition to having different authors with differing views and reasons for writing their novel, many of the notable differences seem to be driven by the distinct changes in technology, society, and global challenges in the four-plus decades between the publication dates.

In closing, there are two more ways in which the two books are alike.  They are each well-written and are really good stories.

One Response to “Starship Troopers vs. Old Man’s War: A Comparison”

  1. psikeyhackr

    Starship Troopers is better than the novel Old Man’s War. But the Old Man’s War Trilogy is batter than Starship Troopers.

    I read Old Man’s War in 2007. It was OK but I was not impressed and decided not to read The Ghost Brigades. But good sci-fi has become so hard to find so I broke down read TGB in 2011. The trilogy got better and it was a mistake to not to have read the last 3 books in the series.

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