The Puppet Masters. Robert Heinlein, 1951. Novel. 416 pages.
"Don't ask me why it was top secret, or even restricted; our government has gotten the habit of classifying anything as secret which the all-wise statesmen and bureaucrats decide we are not big enough girls and boys to know, a Mother-Knows-Best-Dear policy. I've read that there used to be a time when a taxpayer could demand the facts on anything and get them. I don't know; it sounds Utopian." - Chapter 24
This is quintessential Cold War alien invasion fiction. The alien threat isn’t violent or abrupt, but is instead insidious: you can never be certain who is a
communist alien; secret intelligence organizations
and political incompetence abound; and danger can come from everywhere – even
However, it’s not all Cold War. The Puppet Masters is also classic Heinlein reading, because the protagonist’s wife and/or primary lover has a surprising key role in solving the book’s overriding conflict, marriages are economic and legal contracts without pomp and circumstance, and there is almost always a cat in the mix.
Despite sticking to the communist vs. America propagandistic theme that characterized so much of Western mid-to-late 20th century sci-fi, this book touched on several interesting, important, and currently relevant ideas, which I’ll discuss in:
The protagonist, known as just ‘Sam,’ is a secret agent in an organization so far under wraps that the NSA would be jealous. He, his boss, and a female agent (read: his future wife) investigate a UFO landing and come across incontrovertible proof of hostile aliens. The politicians ignore them anyway, at least until it’s far too late.
The majority of the novel is centered around a border war as our heroes try to stop the aliens, which are parasitic blobs that cling to humans’ backs and take control of their bodies while reproducing quickly enough to try and systematically take over the whole population. This attempted containment continues while people try to find a way to kill the aliens without killing too many of the humans hosts.
The humans eventually succeed, sort of, but Heinlein creates a few sub-conflicts, horrifying implications, and things for all alien invasion novel readers to keep in mind:
- An alien threat is never really extinguished.
- We can make no assumptions about what aliens are like. (This one usually finds form in a fairly whiny – if probably correct – scientist who says ‘biology doesn’t work that way’ only for a gung-ho hero to point a weapon at the scientist and say ‘account for it anyway.’)
- We will feel more extremely – positively or negatively – about anthropomorphic aliens.
- Forget it being hard to stop: a subtle alien invasion will be hard to prove.
- Once a government fails at preventing an alien invasion, which they’re hardly equipped to prevent to begin with, law and order as we know it will be gone.
This has so many moments of awesome that it’s easy to overlook the clichés without thinking twice. Even without the Heinlein social agenda, The Puppet Masters is good because it really probes how we as a whole would react to an alien invasion that doesn’t result in our immediate destruction.
With terror, paranoia, occasional brilliance, and a whole lot of red tape.
If you’ve read the book or have something you want to add, be sure to leave a comment. Also, if you have any Heinlein books you think should be reviewed in light of how to survive alien invasions (Starship Troopers, anyone?), let me know!
Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.