Retro Review The Puppet Masters

17 Apr

Robert A. Heinlein’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Puppet Masters is unusual, in my lifetime exploration of Heinlein’s works, in being the only adult novel of Heinlein’s that I was able to read as a child. Part of this, I suspect, is because The Puppet Masters is also more pulpy than Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land; it includes literary aspects, but Heinlein doesn’t allow them to overshadow the plot. There is enough excitement to thrill my young mind and ensure I didn’t get bored when Heinlein started sermonising.

It also scared hell out of me.

Heinlein was not the most emotional of writers – strong emotions were something he tried to avoid, I think (witness how mild Revolt in 2100 is compared to The Handmaid’s Tale) – but The Puppet Masters manages to touch on a very primal human fear, that of losing complete control and, perhaps, even finding happiness in slavery. Where Citizen of the Galaxy presents slavery as brutal, The Puppet Masters suggests it can be seductive. Why not let someone else do your thinking for you? Heinlein had a very clear answer to that question, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Puppet Masters is centred on an American secret agent – ‘Sam’ – who, working with the enigmatic ‘Old Man’ and ‘Mary,’ is sent to investigate a report of a flying saucer landing in the United States, a landing that was subsequently called a hoax. The Old Man – we later find out that he’s actually Sam’s father – doesn’t believe it. The agent who saw the original craft was no bungler. Poking around, they discover a number of people who are seemingly dead inside – and, when they take one captive, they discover that he is being ‘ridden’ by an alien entity. The flying saucer was no hoax. Earth is being invaded by aliens from Titan and there’s no time to lose.

Unfortunately, the Old Man finds it hard to convince the President – or anyone – that the alien threat is actually real. This nearly leads to disaster when the alien – the Slug – escapes, after managing to hitch a ride on Sam. Sam finds himself in a state of perfect bliss, never once questioning his role as the slave … until he is freed. And then he reacts with utter horror to his experiences.

Eventually, after some antics in Congress, the Slugs are revealed … but it’s too late to keep them from occupying a large chunk of the United States. The best anyone can do is keep a quarantine around the area and force the entire population to walk around naked, or as close to it as possible. (Even that isn’t enough, as the Slugs are apparently capable of riding animals as well as humans.) Sam and Mary get married (the romance is the weakest part of the book, although it is clear that they’re close to equals), only to have their honeymoon interrupted by an alien intruder. It seems that the end is just a matter of time. However, the Old Man has a trick up his sleeve. Mary was the last survivor of a fringe colony on Venus and her repressed memories may reveal a way to beat the Slugs. To Sam’s horror, she volunteers to have the memories recovered.

They discover, perhaps in a deliberate tip of the hat to The War of the Worlds, that a host who becomes ill will kill the Slug. The only solution is to infect everyone in the occupied zone, a desperate gamble that claims the life of the Old Man. And the book ends with the heroes setting off to Titan intent on wrecking revenge.

Like Revolt in 2100, The Puppet Masters is told in first-person. It’s an interesting choice, although it forces Sam to take a break from the action to tell us what happened on a wider scale. It works better than it did in Revolt, at least partly because Heinlein matured as a writer. The characters are more real, the action comfortably both small and large scale; indeed, The Puppet Masters codified a number of alien invasion tropes that are depressingly common today.

Sam is also a better character than Lyle, without quite the naive uncertainty of the older character. He’s brave and resourceful and survives becoming an unwilling host (it’s made clear that others don’t always survive.) He’s also hard-headed, reckless and given to bellowing like a bull when his wife’s safety is involved. Mary doesn’t become that much less interesting after they get married, although she is clearly traumatised by her brief possession during their honeymoon (in a manner akin to Sam); Sam still moves from seeing her as an equal, to some extent, to a subordinate housewife. It isn’t clear what she thinks of this.

The Puppet Masters is also set in a future that never was. Humanity has a space program, there are colonies (and aliens) on Venus and there are flying cars; apparently, there was also a Third World War at some point, which ended inconclusively. That said, it’s easy enough to envisage their USA as ours, perhaps slightly less so. Heinlein got a lot of things right, and they shine through his writing, but he also got a lot of things wrong.

Pulpy or not, The Puppet Masters manages to touch on a number of issues that were of vital importance during Heinlein’s day – and, perhaps, even more important now. One issue concerns control of communications, an odd echo of the present-day issues with the internet and social media. Heinlein didn’t postulate anything more advanced than video phones and televisions, but he demonstrated that whoever controls the media and communications controls the country. The Slugs use it to keep people in the occupied zones unaware of the danger until far too late. In our world, the Left’s takeover of Hollywood and Silicon Valley is not good for democracy even if you’re a leftist yourself.

Linked to this is the fundamental refusal to believe in a threat, one that may seem out of this world, until it is almost too late. Pre-9/11, hijacked airliners used as cruise missiles were the stuff of thrillers; post-9/11, they were very real threats. As Sam notes, the Slugs could have been stopped in their tracks very quickly if immediate measures had been taken. Instead, humanity finds itself pushed to the brink of defeat. The persistent refusal to believe that yes, there are people who want to kill us, who hate us merely for existing, is a greater danger than naked force. Later, when we do grasp it, we run the risk of paranoia and mob rule. Once social trust is lost, either directly or indirectly, our society runs the risk of collapsing into ever-smaller tribes who are constantly warring with each other.

But perhaps most importantly of all is the slavery. Heinlein does not pull any punches when describing the horrors of being turned into a puppet. The Slugs are terrible masters – they don’t even think to make Sam wash while he’s their slave – and resistance is literally unthinkable. There are collaborators, but they’re people the Slugs have ridden and know to be reliable. Indeed, the Slugs – like the USSR’s communists – are nothing more than parasites, literally riding on the back of the working man. (Sam even wonders what difference, if any, the Slugs would make in Russia.) The Slugs offer peace, but it comes at a terrible price. They’re such bad masters that they work their hosts to death and then move on. I don’t know how true it is that Social Justice has ruined Marvel and the NFL, but putting causes ahead of profits is self-defeating in the long run. Putting your life in someone else’s hands is very dangerous, if only because their interests may not align with yours.

The Puppet Masters carries a simple message; free men must be prepared to fight to maintain that freedom, rather than allow themselves to be lulled into slow surrender. The West has made that mistake time and time again, most notably in 1938; freedom is not free and we have forgotten that. We have grown used to the idea of quick and decisive victories, neither of which have ever truly materialised. Don’t rely on the government. Get the facts, think for yourself, then make up your own mind … and get used to the idea that there is no perfect solution. Human history is practically made of problems caused by the solution to the last set of problems.

In many ways, The Puppet Masters reads as an odd cross between James Bond (both as a secret agent and in the father-son relationship between M and Bond) and some of John Wyndham’s books, most notably The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos. It has its flaws – the relationship between Sam and the Old Man reads a little wonky at first, as if Heinlein wasn’t intending to make them actually related at first – but it is still a very strong read.

And, if you happen to like alien invasion stories, you might be surprised by how many of them started here.

9 Responses to “Retro Review The Puppet Masters”

  1. Ben Sevier April 17, 2018 at 4:57 pm #

    I enjoyed the book as a teen when it first came out, and again a couple of years ago. Heinlein always seems to be ahead of most thinkers of his time as to what the effects of events might have, so it’s interesting to read his books today. While some reflect the writing styles of the day he was able to break out of them to develop his own that are modern in many ways.

    One theme that began showing up in his books was his interest in what today is called “social nudity”, a growing movement. The emergence of a character in the middle of a West Coast “nudist camp” where he meets up with a member couple (who from this distance remind me of the author), the long period a character lived on a “nudist island off the coast of France” in another book where he met the woman who would change his life course, the use of public nudity in “Puppets”, and his later descriptions of various nude adventures of his main characters all point to his interest and participation in the naturist (as it’s called today) lifestyle. Something not many mainstream writers of that day admitted to…

    Anyway, I really enjoy your reviews, as well as your own great books!

  2. Pyo April 17, 2018 at 5:37 pm #

    “In our world, the Left’s takeover of Hollywood and Silicon Valley is not good for democracy even if you’re a leftist yourself.”
    *rolls eyes*

    But of course, that just makes me someone blind to the threat that will destroy all civilization, unlike the willful blindness towards sexism and chauvinism that dominated these industries the last century …

  3. Anarchymedes April 17, 2018 at 9:48 pm #

    Chris, this is an obsession: please review soneone else, just for a change. And while you’re at it, try to avoid politics and all this ‘left vs right’ thing – just as a challenge.

  4. Dani April 17, 2018 at 10:41 pm #

    > In our world, the Left’s takeover of Hollywood and Silicon Valley…

    When I was in grad school, a perplexed classmate from India asked me why, since the US media (at the time that meant newspapers, magazines, and television) were controlled by Jews, they weren’t marshaled to provide better support for Israel. Having had a lot of time to think about it, I still can’t think of a useful way to have responded.

  5. Derek Knox April 18, 2018 at 3:49 am #

    Wasn’t this one of Heinlein’s “lost” books? One that was published after his death, when they found a bunch of unfinished manuscripts in his desk. Stories he either didn’t finish, or had decided not to publish.

    • Matt Harris April 18, 2018 at 5:21 am #

      No – this was published in the 60s.

  6. William Ameling April 18, 2018 at 11:40 am #

    I remember reading this back in the 1960s from the Public Library.

    As an adult rather than a teenager, I find myself wondering how the puppet masters avoided total economic collapse, in particular of food production. Why would any puppet master want to spend his time making his mount do anything to support the economy, including producing food. I do not quite understand how they ever developed the interplanetary travel to get here from Titan, unless they some how developed and took control after the other race of puppets reached a high level of technology.

    Heinlein did manage to throw in a little futuristic social changes, particularly marriage contracts with limited time spans, salary agreements between the partners, etc.

    • chrishanger April 26, 2018 at 8:47 am #

      I had the impression the Slugs didn’t care.


  7. George Phillies April 19, 2018 at 5:07 am #

    There was also Red Planet Mars (I think…folks on ice skates is most of what I remember) in which in the ms Martians did not wear clothing inside dwellings. It was too expensive. That got taken out at some point, or so I have read.

    I infer that Chris is working on a book, a literary analysis, of Heinlein. In that case, I would stay with discussions of the real media in period.

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