Robert A. Heinlein,
The Puppet Masters
(Doubleday, 1951; Del Rey, 1986)

The Puppet Masters is one of Robert Heinlein's most entertaining novels. A fairly quick read, it provides a wealth of enjoyment for both young and old alike. The Earth is being invaded by hostile alien forces, but few people recognize this fact or choose to believe it -- for this is no typical invasion. These extraterrestrials are slugs who attach themselves to human hosts, thereby controlling them and giving the appearance of normalcy to those around them (and, more importantly, to typically slow-witted politicians).

Our protagonists, mysterious agents of some murky, top-secret government agency in the early 21st century, enter the fray when a flying saucer supposedly lands in Iowa and is quickly proclaimed a hoax. They are soon able to figure out what is actually going on, though, and manage to convince a reluctant president of the seriousness of the matter. Soon Schedule Bare Back is in force, requiring all citizens to wear nothing (or next to nothing in the case of women) above their waists -- slug-invaded hosts bear a discernible hump on their backs where the aliens imbed themselves. These aliens are smart, though, and the government is typically naive and slow to respond, so eventually the fate of the nation depends on the work of our three heroes.

The protagonists are typically peculiar Heinlein characters. The hard to read Old Man runs the show, while Sam and Mary conduct much of the field and security work. Mary is a beautiful, mysterious female agent, and naturally Sam immediately falls head over heels in love with her. Together, they identify the means by which the slugs propagate, eventually developing first-hand knowledge of the slugs despite their best intentions and precautions. As compelling as the slug crisis is, the interrelationships between the Old Man, Sam and Mary are even more interesting. One never truly knows a Heinlein character, and there are some surprising twists and turns in the evolution and past histories of the important ones here.

The tidbits we are given about life in the 21st century and the recent past history of America are slipped in rather slyly; America did win World War III, we learn, but did not escape a limited nuclear attack; the defeated yet unbowed Soviets remain Communists (drawing a perfectly legitimate question in the mind of Sam as to how much difference it would make for the Soviets to fall victim to slug control) and marriage has become a business contract available for periods of six months up to the old-fashioned yet rarely selected lifetime commitment.

This is basically an action-packed alien invasion story of an unusual sort, driven along unflaggingly by Heinlein. The science of this science fiction is present but by no means takes away from or slows down the story whatsoever. Even as incredible wartime events unfold rapidly, we are continually treated to a character study of sorts of our heroes.

This is not sociological science fiction, yet there is much in that vein to draw one's eye. Certainly, a Cold War influence can be felt in these pages, especially early on when it seems all but impossible to tell who is an enemy and who is not. The issue of civil liberties is brought up when the government basically demands all citizens to live and work essentially nude (because that is the only way to tell whether Joe Schmo is walking around with a slug or not) The novel is not politicized, however, with the exception of allusions to government's predictable weaknesses and failures. The bare-bones skeleton of the tale is rather common fare, despite the unusual nature of the aliens here, but Heinlein's incredible characterization, subtle references to psychological and sociological issues, and unique manner of telling a story make this a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 7 May 2005

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