Puppet Masters, The by Robert A. Heinlein

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

First published 1951. Revised edition 1990.

Review by Mark Yon

Alien invasion? Fifties paranoia? Mind control?

After a visit to the British Library’s Out of this World Exhibition in London, I was suddenly reminded that I hadn’t read this Heinlein for a long while. (Thinking further, I realise that it’s actually about thirty years!)

And indeed I haven’t read it in its ‘uncensored’ version, which was published in 1990 with the tale increased from about 60 000 words to 96 000.

So: it was time to revisit!

Puppet Masters is Heinlein’s version of an alien invasion tale, written at a time when such tales were popular in film and in prose.

The tale itself is quite simple. Told in the first person, ‘Sam’ Nivens (not his real name) is working for the US secret service. This means different names, different places, different faces (as I find on the first page a blonde in bed with Sam, who wasn’t there in my original version!)

He’s assigned with a redheaded woman currently named Mary and his boss, ‘the Old Man’, who go to investigate a report of a crashed saucer in Des Moines. It is quickly claimed to be a hoax – a schoolboy prank reported by an overenthusiastic local news station, but there is clearly more to it. Mary, being the typical Heinlein heroine, notices she doesn’t get a reaction from the adult males that she usually receives – the drooling is pretty much left to Sam.

Things develop as Sam and his colleagues quickly discover a secret invasion is going on that seems to suggest the future of the human race is at stake. Sam’s job is to stop it.

Those of you who know ‘Operation Annihilate’ from Star Trek: the Original Series will get an idea of this story and realise how close these tales are. I’m surprised Heinlein didn’t sue, frankly.

But back to the book. What we have here though is a B-movie plot written in the Heinlein way, with all the good and bad points it entails. There is the usual fabulous prose, the honed wise-cracking comments, the drip-feeding of all those little neat ideas that Heinlein does so well. The plot moves along at a great pace and there’s a lot of tension and suspense along the way.

There’s also the use of a typical strong redheaded Heinlein-gal, with all the ‘Hey, sister’ type comments that the Heinlein character usually has attached to it. These still jar a little, even allowing for the context of the times. Though Mary is fast, intelligent, strong, resourceful and more than capable, there is still a feeling that all she’s there for is to serve the needs of our Hero, Sam. This is not by far the worst example of this by RAH – later novels do it much more – but it is more noticeable in this souped-up, more risqué version.

This is perhaps where I see a transition between the juveniles and say, Stranger in a Strange Land: this still has the excitement and the pace of the juvies, but the addition of the posturing lecture seen in later books such as Stranger. That and the need to get naked.  Sometimes ‘more’ can mean ‘less’, and I’m reminded of that, as I was when I read the longer version of Stranger in a Strange Land – I’m in two minds to decide whether this longer Puppet Masters is one of those examples. 

Despite this, the tale’s an engaging one and must have shook things up a little when first published in 1951 – 60 years ago. There are parts that are quite good, for all of my complaints.

In summary, though, this is an interesting read: an alien invasion story with some intelligence that shows many of Heinlein’s strengths, but a few of his weaknesses, and sadly more so in this longer version. It is definitely worth reading, though it has to be seen as a product of its time.

Mark Yon, July 2011

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