Monday, December 07, 2009

The Puppet Masters (1951)

The Puppet Masters was first published in 1951 as a manuscript of approximately 60,000 words, eliminating some 36,000 words from Heinlein’s original story. The cuts were made because of concerns about the book’s length and the controversial (sexual) nature of some of the passages eliminated. Of course, what was risqué in 1951 is extremely tame by today’s standards and in 1990, two years after his death, Heinlein’s original version was finally published. I read the shorter version of The Puppet Masters sometime in the early 1960s but this review is based on my just completed reading of the long version.

When a flying saucer lands in isolated Grinnell, Iowa, it appears to be business-as-usual, just another hoax put together by a couple of Iowa farm boys with nothing better to do. Or is it? All the “Old Man” knows for sure is that he sent several agents to Iowa to investigate the landing and that none of them have been seen or heard from since. That is why he decides to go to Iowa along with two of his best agents, “Sam” and “Mary,” posing as a family of tourists in Grinnell to get a firsthand look at the flying saucer. What they see is an obvious hoax, a ship that would fool no one for long. What they learn before barely escaping Grinnell, however, is shocking.

The citizens of Grinnell, Iowa, are being controlled by alien parasites that have attached themselves to the spinal columns of their victims. Since the parasites are hidden by the clothing of those they control, all appears normal to unsuspecting humans until they, too, are saddled with a Puppet Master of their very own.

The “Old Man” and his two agents return to Washington D.C. where they face the difficult task of convincing the President and his staff that the threat from Iowa is real. Seeking evidence that will finally convince government authorities that the U.S. has been invaded by an alien culture, Sam returns to Iowa with two agents and a live camera capable of broadcasting “stereo” images back to Washington. Needless to say, things do not go well for Sam and his crew but he accidentally returns with the proof he needs to make his case: an agent who has been taken over by one of the alien “slugs.” Thus, begins America’s fight for survival but, despite the best efforts of America’s military, the entire center of the U.S., from north to south, is soon lost to the Puppet Masters.

The Puppet Masters is very much a novel of its time. Heinlein, for instance, makes comparisons between what it is like for an American living under the control of a Puppet Master and what it is like to live behind the Iron Curtain or in communist Russia. Sam comes to the conclusion that the two experiences must be very similar, maybe even worse for the unfortunate Europeans and Russians. Too, modern readers are likely to find Heinlein’s attitude toward women to be sexist, and at least a bit offensive, because his female characters, unless they are elderly, are always described in terms of their attractiveness, first, and their abilities, second. And, while this long version of the novel does include Sam’s sexual escapades, his romance with Mary, and references to orgies and the like, it is all presented in a very 1950s squeaky clean manner. It is the kind of thing that appealed mightily, of course, to teenage male readers of the era.

The Puppet Masters holds up surprisingly well today despite the fact that it was one of the first alien invasion novels of its type, one in which those being invaded by aliens took the initiative to fight back. One could not likely have read the novel during the 1950s without thinking of America’s cold war with Russia and all the horrors that might suddenly spring from that standoff. Mr. Heinlein knew his audience well and The Puppet Masters became a science fiction classic.

(The photo, above, is of the original cover of The Puppet Masters.)

Rated at: 5.0

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