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An artist on creating the retro art for a new edition of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers

An artist on creating the retro art for a new edition of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers


Heinlein’s classic has never looked better

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Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

The Folio Society is responsible for a number of beautiful editions of classic works of science fiction. Earlier this fall, it began offering another fan-favorite edition: Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

The specialty publisher has released high-end books for more than 50 years, has only recently begun to issue its own editions of genre works like Frank Herbert’s Dune, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and others, which Starship Troopers now joins.

Heinlein’s controversial book was first published in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, depicting a brutal war between humans and a civilization of insectoid aliens. Heinlein uses the novel to muse about a citizen’s responsibilities to their state as he follows a young infantry soldier named Johnny Rico, who joins the military’s armored Mobile Infantry and encounters the horrors of war.

This particular edition contains an introduction by none other than Joe Haldeman, the author of The Forever War, which is widely seen as a response to Heinlein’s book. He lays out his own thoughts on the story and its place in the larger science fiction canon.

It’s a surprisingly critical examination for such an introduction, but Haldeman speaks from a point of authority. A draftee who served in the US Army as a combat engineer during the Vietnam War, his experiences would later inform his own classic novel, which shares many elements with that of Heinlein’s book. Haldeman says that while he disagrees with Heinlein on many points, the late author’s works “changed the twentieth century, and remain necessary in the twenty-first.”

In addition to the additional commentary, the Folio Society commissions original art for each book, beautiful illustrations that complement the scenes are you read them. The Verge spoke with artist Hickman about his approach to illustrating Heinlein’s classic novel.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

When did you first read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and why do you think it’s endured for nearly 50 years?

I found Starship Troopers in my high school library, along with everything that Robert Heinlein had written up to that point — this would have been around 1962 or 1963. I was a freshman, and Starship Troopers had a lot of socio-political concepts that I of course did not have any opinions on at the time, and which would most likely have been unreadable if they had been presented without Heinlein’s energy and persuasive logic. They only make sense in the context of interstellar travel and power relationships with two other alien races anyway. Agree with it or not, this is the just kind of challenging speculation that science fiction has always been about, and which makes the genre valuable as such.

One thing that fascinates me in this book is the way Heinlein uses the principles of mobility and firepower, as devised by the first modern army in history, the Mongols, who went from a loose collection of contentious tribes to conquering the known world in half a lifetime. These principles were studied by Generals Rommel and Patton in World War II, and in fact form the basis of land warfare and air combat maneuvering to this day. The Mongols are not mentioned in the book, but their tactics inform the concept of powered armor, which the world of anime has taken to itself with such energy. And, by the absence of powered armor, makes the movie version of Starship Troopers a particularly pointless shooting gallery sort of exercise.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

You’ve provided cover illustrations for some of Heinlein’s works before — how did working on this edition stack up to those works?

The main difference is that I had quite a bit more time on each of my previous illustrations to refine and finish the paintings, which were done just for book cover images.

A cover is like a small movie poster, designed to compete with literally hundreds of similar tiny posters for the attention of potential buyers in bookstores. On the other hand, illustrations for the interior of a book should be approached a bit differently.  They can be more quiet and thoughtful in their presentation, in terms of color mood and content, which is relative in the case of a book like Starship Troopers, naturally.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

How did you go about selecting the specific images for this edition? 

That aspect was something of a challenge. As The Folio Society’s art director Sheri Gee pointed out right from the start, most of the action takes place near the end of the story. I had read the book fairly recently and knowing the story I managed to pick out interesting aspects that could be reasonably be spaced closer to the beginning. The first thing I did was to do a series of thumbnail drawings on the same page, just to give some idea of how to proceed with the project. But that was really the easiest part of the whole effort.

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

One of the things that I’m always interested in about military science fiction is the evolving nature of real-world equipment. Did you draw any inspiration from modern technology?

I’ve ended up doing quite a lot of military SF in my time and keeping up with real-world developments is definitely the basis for generating a convincing feeling in creating the look of future hardware. But for Starship Troopers, written in 1959, I felt that a more retro approach would be the treatment to go with on this edition, and tried my best for a look that many of its readers will recognize with a certain amount of nostalgic affection.