“The Russian propaganda system began to blast us as soon as they had worked out a new line. The whole thing was an ‘American Imperialist fantasy.’ I wondered why the titans had not attacked Russia first; the place seemed tailor-made for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make.”
Let’s get something straight, Robert Heinlein (1907-1988) was a great writer–he’s known as the “Dean of Science Fiction” for god’s sake–but he was also an irritating, perplexing, stubborn son of a gun, too. His novels overflow with machismo, radical individualism, libertarian ideology, and militarism. But if you can stomach the ride, it’s fantastic.
The Puppet Masters is from an early part of his career (he didn’t start writing until he was 32) and one of his most entertaining novels. A page turner about slug-like creatures that invade Earth (landing first in that Mecca…Grinnell, Iowa), attach themselves to the spines of humans, and rule their “puppets,” body and mind. Anti-communist propaganda? You bet. The affected zones are red (gee, what color is associated with communism?); the liberated zones are green (what’s the color of money?). The slugs are intellectual but devoid of culture and physical ability. They secretly take over positions of power, they scare citizens with false news stories and misinformation, and they are sexless (what could be worse? One of the main characters, a hottie named “Mary,” is able to “sniff” out the “hagridden” men by seeing if they are attracted to her or not. Yikes!). On top of that, there is a subplot about a freaky human commune gone bad, people run around naked to prove they are free of parasites, and there are some not too subtle jabs at American liberalism. It’s always a political feast with the H-man!
The book is written in first-person, with a feverish narrative that seems to be fed on the hardboiled writers of the time. It gives a particularly delicious entertainment to the novel, especially when the narrator becomes the host for his own sluggy parasite. There’s also the strange, typically Heinleinian characters: a strong and resourceful woman who’s ready to bootlick her lover like a pet after he treats her like dirt (“I’ve loved you ever since you slapped me.”), the cold father figure who uses his “children” like Kleenex and later claims it’s to build character, ineffectual members of Congress, a perception-driven President, and a narrator who’s as likely to crack a terrible joke as cry (Heinlein’s idea of a strong man).
I’ve got much more to say about Heinlein (like the Socialist party membership he tried to hide evidence of later in life), but there’s plenty of time for that–this is the first of a couple of his novels on David Pringle’s list. And with reason. Heinlein is one of the heavy hitters from one of the most popular periods in sf’s history.
(P.S. There’s a really bad movie version that stars Donald Sutherland…don’t bother.)