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The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: The Puppet Masters

On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.

The Puppet Masters
I think the UFO was shot down by that torpedo bra

After a flying saucer crashes in the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa, agents from a clandestine security force known as The Section start disappearing at an alarming rate when sent to investigate. The leader of the Section, a figure known only as The Old Man, decides to go there himself, along with one of his best agents, "Sam" (who also happens to be his son), and "Mary," a female agent with mysterious connections to alien life. They find out that the townsfolk are being controlled by strange, slug-like alien beings that attach to their spines and take over their minds. Though the trio rushes to convince the government of the threat in time to contain it, the alien invasion spreads at an alarming rate, far faster than seems possible. After Sam himself survives prolonged exposure to the slugs, he, Mary, and The Section may be the only ones with the knowledge and skill capable of saving the human race from eternal subjugation.

Preceeding Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers by four years, The Puppet Masters is one of Heinlein's best early novels. It has strong characters, a clever sci-fi premise that is fairly original for the time, and better writing than the juveniles he was then known for. Heinlein sets his story in the future (of 2007) and even though he isn't known as the most accurate futurist, he actually manages to anticipate a few real-world technological developments, including bluetooth cellphones, flying drones, and self-driving cars. Granted, he gets a lot wrong, too, predicting that those cars will fly, that we'll have conquered and colonized both Mars and Venus, and more.

The Puppet Masters
This man has seen things

There's also the matter of his greater world-building, which he reveals through offhand references to World War III, which was apparently a nuclear exchange that left the landscape--both the geopolitical one and the geological one--utterly changed. Heinlein relies on a method of unveiling the world through the perspective of characters who consider such things common knowledge, with elaboration unnecessary. In his later career, he would learn to wield this technique well, but here, it's sloppy and confusing, leaving readers with the lingering impression that they must have missed something or that Heinlein was simply being lazy in not doing the legwork of explaining how things are the way they are.

But in true Heinlein style, where he really fails to see progress is in the social sphere, particularly as it relates to the sexual revolution. His take on sexual politics is very much set in the time of his writing--the early 1950's--and he wouldn't mature on the matter until much later in his career, and even then, that maturation is dubious. (This becomes especially apparent in Stranger in a Strange Land.) In The Puppet Masters, Heinlein predicts a future that is still very much mired in patriarchical views on a woman's place in the world and how they should be treated by men.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Mary. Mary starts the novel as a surprisingly liberated free spirit who refuses the advances of the male lead, Sam, with aplomb. By the end, though, she has become a demure, subservient damsel in distress who defers every ounce of her will to Sam, whose love for her never feels particularly convincing, rewarding, or genuine. She's given an interesting backstory, but it is revealed far too late in the story, after her character has already gone through the ridiculous transformation into a living Stepford Wife.

The Puppet Masters
This one reminds me of a scene from an Elm Street movie

Long-time readers of this blog know I take a dim view on judging writers of a different time by the standards of the modern age--that works and authors deemed "problematic" are often only made so by the prejudices of the reader--but in Heinlein's case, I don't accept that he was just reflecting the accepted views of his time. Other writers of the 50's were able to write well-realized female characters with arcs more interesting than "she learned that independence is a poor substitute for becoming a willing slave to the male lead," and so, while I give Heinlein some leeway, I still think it perfectly fair to criticize his poor treatment of women in works like this one. (To be fair, a case can be made for Heinlein as a proto-feminist in some of his other early works like Tunnel in the Sky, but also, there is an even stronger case to be made for his being a mysogynist if you look at novels like Friday, which I have no plans to touch with a ten-foot pole this summer.)

No doubt some modern readers will be unable to get past this issue in The Puppet Masters--and I don't really blame them--but if you can set it aside, the rest of the novel demonstrates at least some of the ways Heinlein solidified his place as one of the giants of science-fiction. It is eminently entertaining and readable, with clever, snappy dialogue and a plot that moves at a healthy clip. Mary aside, it also has a few great characters.

The Old Man is of special note, an archetypal character that can be found in some form or another in many Heinlein novels. He is a wise but world-weary mentor figure who is incredibly intelligent and incredibly cynical. His personal connection to Sam adds an extra layer to him, as Heinlein clearly lays out how the Old Man's devotion to duty supercedes his ability to have a warm, healthy relationship with his own son. This arc lays the groundwork for--spoiler warning--what should be a great climax, with the hero Sam forced to confront the combined intelligence and wills of both the slugs and his father, but Heinlein drops the ball in the final moments and reduces their confrontation to Sam kicking the controls of their car instead of overcoming his ultimate challenge through his own wits and will.

The Puppet Masters
It's like a Heavy Metal cover on a tie dye shirt--I'd wear it

Fortunately, Heinlein does not take the easy way out when it comes to defeating the slugs in general. In most stories of this type, with hive-minded creatures taking over the world--nearly all of which came after The Puppet Masters--the writer finds a cheap trick to exploit, typically a hive queen that, when destroyed, simultaneously destroys all of the hive. Heinlein doesn't do this, and it makes the happy conclusion feel deserved instead of contrived. It's also worth noting that he demonstrates an understanding of social progress--despite his inability to foresee it in many respects--by pointing out that the social upheaval of the story has lasting ramifications for how society views things like public nudity. (During the course of the story, people are forced to wear practically nothing as a way to make it impossible for the slugs to hide, and after the invasion is over, the taboo of public nudity is pretty much gone.)

Now, unlike Jack Finney's Body Snatchers, The Puppet Masters absolutely has a political subtext. In fact, it's so explicitly about the red scare that I probably shouldn't even call it a "subtext" so much as the actual text. Heinlein, unlike Finney, is a political writer obsessed with political topics, and The Puppet Masters manages to be both a satire of communist paranoia and a frightening warning that justifies it. Heinlein is coy here--less provocative than he is later in his career--but he is nonetheless having fun with politics, using them as a way to add weight and intrigue to his story.

But rest assured, this is one of Heinlein's easiest reads, a good starting point for newcomers. It doesn't get bogged down with obscure details the way many Heinlein novels do, and aside from its unfortunate handling of the sexes, it isn't trying to get a rise out of you. Even though it absolutely has politics underlining everything, it is still an entertaining story full of sci-fi thrills and a hearty sense of adventure.

-e. magill 6/20/2019

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  • Rocket Ship Galileo
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