Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thoughts on "The Puppet Masters"

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“The Puppet Masters” (1951) by Robert Heinlein is about alien parasites that secretly invade Earth and start taking over people’s bodies.

I’ve read in some reviews that the aliens were supposed to represent Communism. Certainly the novel was influenced by 1950’s Communist paranoia. And there is the element in the novel that anyone could be possessed by one of the aliens, your wife or your child could be hagridden. This definitely evokes the sort of fear that the McCarthy types were stirring up, but I think it is overly simplistic to say that’s what the novel was about. The aliens in this novel weren’t Communist, they may not have even been sentient. The first sentence of the novel is, “Were they truly intelligent?” On the one hand the aliens built space ships and invaded the earth. On the other hand, they don’t seem to be intelligent enough to take care of their host bodies. They are like locus all they do is take over a host and ride it until it dies. Before invading America they hit Europe and Asia and after a few months that whole side of the globe is plague ridden due to a complete lack of hygiene.

One thing that struck me about the novel was how we didn’t learn the protagonist’s name for so long. Well, he was called “Sam”, but we knew that wasn’t really his name. We also, didn’t know the Old Man’s name or “Mary’s.” We didn’t know anyone’s name! Then of course if you stick with it you realize there was good reason for all the cloak and dagger. The reveal that the “Old Man” is actually Sam’s old man as in his father was a huge shock to me. I’d enjoyed the interplay between the boss and his trusted agent, but the revelation that they were father and son blew me away. I don’t think I’d been that surprised about a familia connection since the first time I saw the “Empire Strikes Back.” When I found out about the Old Man and Sam, I almost decided to start the book over again from the beginning. Time after time the Old Man showed his faith in Sam by sending him on highly dangerous missions. I’m definitely not cut out to be the head of Section, because how do you know whether to send your best agent? What if it’s a trap? What if you lose him/her? Add to the mix that he’s your son. Gosh, maybe it’s because I’m a new father, but I thought it was stirring stuff.

The story takes place in the future after WWIII, but futuristic technologies are kept to a minimum, there’s air cars and guns that “burn,” but that’s about all I noticed. At the beginning of the novel Sam has a phone in his head, but I don't remember it ever being referenced again.
The focus of a lot of the criticism of the novel centers on the treatment of “Mary” in the novel and rightly so. I mean, when Mary is told to “wait in the car,” I can accept that as some dated 1950’s misogamism. But, the part where Mary gets slapped in the face by Sam was nearly too much to take. And then Heinlein found a way to make it even worse by having Mary say later that, “I’ve loved you ever since you slapped me” (p120 of my copy).

The interesting thing about the end of the book is that when the Old Man is taken over by a slug the result seems to be something new. Unlike what Sam experienced where he said he was merely a vessel, the slug and the Old Man seemed to be sharing. The result was more like an evil version of the Old Man rather than a puppet. Were the slugs evolving? Or was the Old Man, just so cool that the aliens couldn’t completely control him?


  1. The Puppet Masters is one of my favorite Heinlein titles, but from all this lit crit, it looks like i better reread it again, and pay better attention to some of the subtleties.

  2. I know I've read it (not at all recently), but that doesn't even sound familiar, John. It's funny how I forget some books so thoroughly. I guess I need to read it again sometime, too. :)