The Puppet Masters: Somewhat icky

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Puppet Masters by Robert A. HeinleinThe Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

Unfriendly aliens from Titan have arrived on Earth and are planning to conquer us. To do this, the slug-like beings latch onto the backs of their human hosts and take over their bodies and minds. The aliens are rapidly spreading in the Midwest and they’ve managed to infiltrate the Treasury Department. To make world domination go even faster and easier, they’re planning to get the President of the United States. That’s why Sam Cavanaugh, secret agent, has been called in from his vacation. He’s teaming up with Mary, a beautiful red-head, to stop the invasion. But Sam and Mary soon learn that even secret agents are susceptible to alien body snatching…. and falling in love.

There’s plenty of action in The Puppet Masters — chases, capture, torture, escape, reconnaissance missions, hide-outs, vehicle crashes, parachute landings, vigilantes, and even a plague. And since this is Robert A. Heinlein, along the way there’s also plenty of skimpy dressing and nudity, an “insta-love” marriage, men paddling women’s behinds, a girl fight, some racist speech (“that’s mighty white of you”) and a lot of sexism. Sam’s boss says “most women are damn fools and children,” Sam praises Mary for not chattering at breakfast, and Mary — remember that she’s a government agent — doesn’t help when she stupidly declares “why ask me, darling? I don’t have an analytical brain.”

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThose are just a few examples out of many I could point out. I have a feeling that Heinlein never expected his novels to be read by anybody who wasn’t a white man. I really hate that about Heinlein’s novels for adults, but at least this story has an exciting plot and some point other than all that icky stuff (I say this because some of his novels don’t). Interestingly, this novel was considered too risqué for publication in 1951 and some of its scenes were deleted. Blackstone Audio’s version, expertly read by Tom Weiner (one of my favorites), is the unedited version.

In his introduction to The Puppet Masters, William H. Patterson Jr tells us that the story’s appearance was timely when it was first serialized in Galaxy magazine in 1951. The Kenneth Arnold UFO sightings had recently occurred, the term “flying saucer” had just entered our vocabulary, and Americans were also worried about soviet spy planes. It was a time of paranoia and The Puppet Masters, one of the first novels about aliens in flying saucers, helped feed the frenzy and spawned a stream of books and movies of similar theme (including one of my favorite cheesy movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). But Patterson points out that Heinlein’s story is always timely because it’s not so much about extraterrestrial aliens as it is about “the real aliens among us.” Heinlein himself, who rarely analyzed his own work for us, calls The Puppet Masters a “diatribe against totalitarianism in all its forms.” And today’s readers will immediately recognize its relevance at a time when Americans are debating the cost of national security at the expense of individual privacy.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein science fiction book reviewsThe Puppet Masters: Early Heinlein at his most embarrassing. DNF.

Slug-like alien invaders who land and take over Des Moines, Iowa, 50s-style cold war paranoia, wise-cracking secret super agents, and a totally hot red-headed babe with deadly weapons concealed on a voluptuous body who is strong-willed but still totally subservient to our intrepid, tough-talking hero Sam. Yes, that would be a Robert A. Heinlein book, this one first published back in 1951. Apparently what I read was the extended version, and I guess they just stuffed back all the embarrassingly-bad, sexy repartee and other bits that should have remained on the editing floor.

Most readers either love or hate Heinlein, and I’ve only read a few of his books, having absolutely hated Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, but really liked The Door Into Summer and Double Star. So after neglecting The Puppet Masters for 20 years I decided to give it a go. Well, maybe I should have left well enough alone.

I’m afraid this book just really didn’t do anything other than induce shivers of discomfort with its hokey dialogue and cartoon characters. The story itself may seem hackneyed now, but it’s been 60 years so I can’t blame that on Heinlein. But the plot itself just completely stalls partway through the book, as what I would expect to be the finale comes in the middle, so I couldn’t bear to read any further.

We all know that the attitudes toward women could be pretty cavalier and sexist back in the Golden Age of SF, but this book really took the cake. Here are a few choice tidbits to make any reader cringe:

I like nurses; they are calm and earthy and very tolerant. Miss Briggs, my night nurse, was not the mouth-watering job that Doris was; she had a face like a jaundiced horse but she had a fine figure for a woman her age, hard and well cared for.

She took a deep drag, swelling out her chest and pushing her arrogant breasts against her halter almost to the breaking point. I thought again what a sweet dish she was; she was just what I needed to take my mind off Mary.

Listen, son, most women are damn fools and children. But they’ve got more range than we’ve got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better and the vile ones are viler, for that matter.

To sum up, I really didn’t find much to like in this book, but perhaps teenage boys in the 1950’s really liked it. Notably, this was the extended edition of The Puppet Masters (96,000 words vs. the original 60,000), so maybe shorter in this case was better. But I won’t waste any more precious reading time finding out.

~Stuart Starosta

The Puppet Masters — (1951) Publisher: First came the news that a flying saucer had landed in Iowa. Then came the announcement that the whole thing was a hoax. End of story. Case closed. Except that two agents of the most secret intelligence agency in the U.S. government were on the scene and disappeared without reporting in. And four more agents who were sent in also disappeared. So the head of the agency and his two top agents went in and managed to get out with their discovery: an invasion is underway by slug-like aliens who can touch a human and completely control his or her mind. What the humans know, they know. What the slugs want, no matter what, the human will do. And most of Iowa is already under their control. Sam Cavanaugh was one of the agents who discovered the truth. Unfortunately, that was just before he was taken over by one of the aliens and began working for the invaders, with no will of his own. And he has just learned that a high official in the Treasury Department is now under control of the aliens. Since the Treasury Department includes the Secret Service, which safeguards the President of the United States, control of the entire nation is near at hand .

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. Astra /

    Yes, but I think I will now remember the phrase “arrogant breasts” for the rest of my life. It will go into my mental folder along with “sugar tits” as male breast-related descriptions that make me laugh out loud.

  2. Stuart, OMG — your first paragraph is priceless! I think it’s safe to say that PUPPET MASTERS is not a classic.

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