My reading this novel was long overdue and I looked forward to it eagerly, especially after seeing how much controversy it still generates today. Now that it comes to reviewing it, one thing I don't really have to worry about is spoilers. This isn't a conventionally plotted novel, more a reflection of the protagonist's (Rico) military career.
What particularly makes this novel so controversial is that Heinlein is postulating, in his own inimical away, a utopian military led society. Furthermore, only those who have served at least a two year term in the military get to become full citizens (which includes getting the vote). Heinlein not only portrays his utopian vision, but forcefully makes the case for it through the polemics of several of the characters in the story.
There is, what might surprise some, a distinct lack of emphasis on action with most of the pages devoted to Rico learning his lessons both while in training and prior to that in school at the hands of his philosophy and history teacher. One thing that didn't sit too well with me was how the teaching of philosophy in this future had become so didactic and full of certitude. Every proposition could be proved or disproved with mathematical certainty.
I like SF when it explores different social ideas, even when I tend to disagree with them, but I tend to prefer an approach that isn't so intent on leading the reader to a particular conclusion. But that's not Heinlein's style. When he conceives of an idea, he gets behind it 100%, inevitably leaving the reader feeling preached at.
If anything, the ideas presented here are more out of phase with the current western cultural consensus than it was fifty years ago and I suppose this has lead many people to think Heinlein must have meant this as a satire. But I don't think that at all. Heinlein is attempting to answer questions and solve problems that we still haven't solved today. However wrong we might think he was, we have no right to glibly dismiss his answers. How do we ensure the power wielded by the electorate is matched by a sense of responsibility to society? How do we maintain an adequate defence against aggressors when strategically speaking attack is often the best form of defence? These are real quandaries for me and I don't know the answer.
In many ways, this is a very egalitarian novel and at times startlingly prescient. Men and women are fully equal in this society and race is irrelevant. His visions of gangs of feral children terrorising the streets towards the end of the 20th century won't seem so far fetched to many of you. The corruption of our politicians, riddled with self-interest described as the inevitable result of our universal suffrage can hardly be denied. What people have issue with though is Heinlein's radical solutions.
Inevitably a somewhat idealised vision of the military is required to make this all work. If a military run society sounds more like a dystopia to you, bear in mind that Heinlein envisages a most benign form of military leadership. There's no martial law and people are generally as free as they ever were. There's less crime and lower taxes. You might dismiss this all as idealistic nonsense but I can't help but admire, for all it's flaws, Heinlein's bold vision.