The Puppet Masters
|The Puppet Masters|
First edition cover
|Author(s)||Robert A. Heinlein|
|Genre(s)||Science fiction novel|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Puppet Masters is a 1951 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein in which American secret agents battle parasitic invaders from outer space. The novel was originally serialised in Galaxy Science Fiction (September, October, November 1951).
Thematically, the book evokes a sense of paranoia later captured in the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which had a similar premise. Heinlein's novel also repeatedly makes explicit the analogy between the mind-controlling parasites and the Communist Russians, echoing the then prevailing Second Red Scare in the United States.
Plot introduction 
Heinlein uses a different "alien invasion" approach than most other authors' stories had taken up to that time. It does not present the "helpless humanity" angle typical of stories from The War of the Worlds onwards, nor does it simply dress up conventional horror themes in the trappings of science fiction. While the invaders are horrifying enough, the focus of the plot is very much the practical business of, on the one hand, the aliens mounting the invasion, and on the other, the efforts of free humans to defeat it.
The setting is the early 21st century (the first scene takes place on July 12, 2007). There had been a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West which left both sides battered but unbroken, and following the hot war they just went back to the Cold War. The Soviet Union and China remain a single bloc dominated by Moscow, with no Sino-Soviet breach in the late 1950s.
Social customs have changed somewhat in a way typical for Heinlein's fiction (i.e. having become more liberal, such as marriage contracts being possible with fixed terms etc.) and
Technology is far more advanced than in the real-life 2007. Rayguns and personal flying cars are commonplace. Space stations and colonies on the planet Venus have been established, and in the end, a space warship is sent on a twelve-year trip to Titan, with a large enough crew and sufficient arms to attack the moon by itself.
However, communications satellites do not exist, and TV broadcasts are still limited to line-of-sight, as they were at the time of writing. This has a crucial importance for the plot. A big country like the United States is divided into numerous "blocks" which receive TV broadcasts from their neighbors and relay them onwards. When the invaders seize one of these "blocks", they effectively control all communications within it and can isolate its inhabitants from the outside world, deny the central government any access to them and consolidate control at their leisure.
The book was written when the wave of supposed flying saucer sightings was at its peak and getting enormous attention in the US media. The actual spaceship of the invaders is a "flying saucer'.
The term "puppet masters" only occurs twice in the book itself, including the very last statement where the narrator writes: "I feel exhilarated. Puppet masters - the free men are coming to kill you! Death and Destruction!"
Plot summary 
"Sam" is an agent in "Section", a United States government intelligence organization. It is so secret it reports only to the President, and is entirely unknown to anyone else. Sam is superbly trained, equipped with a built-in communicator he calls a "skull phone" as well as a number of ways to commit suicide if the need arises.
Called in by "the Old Man", his boss and the head of the organization, they go to investigate the report of a flying saucer landing in Grinnell, Iowa after other agents sent earlier fail to report back. With them is another agent named "Mary", a stunningly beautiful redhead. Sam is informed that her life is only slightly less precious than the Old Man's, and that he (Sam) is the most expendable.
In Iowa, they discover that the people are being brought under the mental control of repulsive, slug-like creatures that attach to their backs, just below the neck. Detaching one slug from its host, they seal it in a film canister and bring it back to headquarters in Washington, D.C. By the time they get there though, the remains of the slug are a stinking mess, and they are unable to convince the President that there is an invasion.
Sam eventually leads a small team back to Iowa. They inadvertently succeed in capturing a live slug, as one agent becomes "hagridden" without them realizing it. However, Mary spots it when he does not react to her allure like a normal male. The agent is unmasked, subdued and confined. The slug escapes by transferring to another person, and eventually to Sam himself. He immediately becomes enslaved and escapes the agency.
Meanwhile, the invasion continues to expand. Slugs are shipped through the mail to recruit more humans. Gradually they infect more and more important people, especially the members of exclusive clubs frequented by politicians. Before the Old Man tracks Sam down and captures him, they have infected the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, whose department controls the United States Secret Service (responsible for the President's personal security); the slugs are a step away from infecting the President himself.
By the time Sam recovers in hospital, anyone fully dressed is suspect. The Old Man wants someone to "wear" the slug so it can be interrogated. Sam cannot bear the idea, but when Mary volunteers, he gives in and does it himself. He is completely aware of himself when possessed, but totally committed to the slugs' cause. The slug dies under torture from electric shocks, but in the process Sam learns that they come from Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.
Thoroughly disgusted by the treatment he has received, Sam is ready to quit. He is at first furious with Mary for entrapping him, and then with the Old Man, when he learns that his boss tricked Mary into it. At this point, it is revealed that the Old Man is Sam's father.
Eventually the politicians realize the danger. From Minnesota to Louisiana, the center of the country has been taken over. On a solo mission to Kansas City, Sam is shocked to discover that the number of slugs is much greater than thought. Instead of taking over key people, they have absorbed the entire human population of the occupied territory. However, he and the Old Man are unable to convince the President to stop a meticulously planned military counter-invasion of the heartland; the entire force is taken over by the enemy. They find that slugs are capable of fissioning in two fairly quickly. The number of infected humans must now be so large that any military action would kill tens of millions.
The problem having reached a scale beyond their ability to influence it, Sam and Mary are given leave. By this time, they have fallen in love and get married before going to Sam's bolt-hole in the Adirondack Mountains. Their idyll is interrupted when a slug takes over first his beloved pet cat, then Mary. Sam manages to push Mary onto a hot fire to kill the slug, leaving them both badly burned, but alive and free.
Returning to HQ for treatment, they find that a new law requires everyone to be functionally naked to show that a slug is not in control. The law is rigorously enforced not as much by police as by vigilantes, who often shoot first and confirm afterward.
Sam begins to believe that the slugs have him marked for repossession. They can communicate by "direct conference", where their hosts sit back to back and the slugs partially merge. A network of such interactions could spread his description rapidly among the invaders, who knew how valuable he is. Some scientists even speculate that the slugs are really just one organism in many bodies.
For their part, the slugs drop all pretenses and openly wage war on the states to their east and west. Where human hosts cannot go, they use animals such as dogs, horses and even elephants.
Sam and Mary go with the Old Man to investigate a saucer which crash-landed in Mississippi. Inside they encounter the slugs' hosts from Titan, small elf-like creatures, who died when Earth's air entered the ship. There are also tanks containing humans in suspended animation. Mary has a mental breakdown when she enters the ship. It triggers long-suppressed memories from when she was a child in a failed Venus colony which was taken over by slugs. She herself spent years in one of the tanks. Mary caught a disease which killed her slug.
They discover that the disease is "Nine-day Fever", which is almost 100% fatal if untreated. However, they find that it kills slugs faster than humans. It might just be possible to spread the fever among the slugs using "direct conference", and then treat as many humans as possible before they die.
The Old Man springs a surprise on Sam. He had expected Sam to replace him one day, and Sam would show when he was ready by opposing the Old Man's authority. From now on, Sam is in charge, official titles notwithstanding.
Time is short – diseases erupt in the infected areas, as the slugs neglect hygiene and often drive their hosts until they starve. Outbreaks of plague in the Communist countries suggest that they were taken over even before the center of the United States.
The counter-attack begins. Releasing animals with infected slugs into enemy territory, they wait for the epidemic to break out. Days pass, and then calls start coming in from desperate people whose slugs have died. Hundreds of thousands of agents, Sam and the Old Man among them, parachute in to treat victims with drug-dispensing guns. Just when the battle seems won, the Old Man is possessed by one of the few healthy slugs and kidnaps Sam, intending to take them both into hiding to regroup for a new invasion. Sam watches in horror as the Old Man's slug begins dividing so he too can be possessed. Despite being tied up, Sam is able to crash their flyer into the sea, killing the slug.
In the final section, Sam writes in a journal before embarking with Mary on a spaceship which will take the battle to Titan. The slugs will remain a problem for years to come, having infected too many parts of the Earth to root out easily, but they will never be able to take over.
Characters in The Puppet Masters 
- Sam, born Elihu Nivens, is the classic Heinlein hero, multi-talented, independent, fiercely loyal to friends and an implacable enemy to foes. He is thirtyish, but has changed appearance so many times even he has doubts as to how he originally looked.
- Mary, born Allucquere in a religious commune on Venus, is Heinlein's classic heroine. She is tall, red-headed, hard-nosed and brilliant. Sam describes her as having the "real redheaded saurian bony structure to her skull". Her professional exterior conceals psychological scars from her encounter with the slugs as a child. Only the Old Man knows the truth about her, thanks to the deep hypnotic analysis that all agents have to undergo. (Academic theorist, artist, and performer Allucquere Rosanne Stone (born Zelig Ben-Natan) lived near the Heinleins at some point in the late 1960s and took the unusual name, but is rather evasive about the exact circumstances.)
- The Old Man, born Andrew Nivens, is the head of a top secret government agency that he wishes did not have to exist, doing his job reluctantly because nobody else would do it properly. He represents the third of Heinlein's favorite types of character, the "wise, grumpy old man". He is the first in the line that includes Jubal Harshaw, Professor Bernardo de la Paz, Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, and the later life of Lazarus Long. (Lazarus Long's grandfather, who has a major role in the later part of Time Enough for Love, is particularly similar in character to "The Old Man".)
Alternative version 
Heinlein's original version of the novel was 96,000 words, and was cut to about 60,000 words for both the 1951 book version and the serialization in Galaxy. For the Galaxy version, editor H.L. Gold also did extensive rewriting, to which Heinlein strenuously objected, with only partial success.
In 1990, two years after Heinlein's death, an expanded version was published with the consent of his widow, Virginia Heinlein. This edition contained material that had been cut from the original published version, because the book was deemed to be too long and controversial for the market in 1951. The uncut version was more risqué in 1951 than it was nearly 40 years later. For example, in the uncut version the book begins with Sam waking up in bed with a blonde whom he had casually picked up the evening before, without even bothering to learn her name; the older version omitted all mention of her. The 1951 version does mention that men possessed by the invaders lost all sexual feeling - an essential element in the early parts of the plot; but the original publisher completely cut out a reference to the "puppet masters" later discovering human sexuality and embarking upon wild orgies, broadcast live on TV in the areas under their control.
An uncut version of Stranger in a Strange Land was also released around the same time. Although ISBN numbers are not supposed to be reused for different editions, the publisher used ISBN 0-345-33014-5 for both a 1986 mass market paperback edition of the shortened version and the mass market paperback edition of the long version, which is the one presently in print.
The versions can be distinguished by the 1986 or 1990 date on the copyright page, and by text in the long version on page 1 reading "With the Soviets..."
Boucher and McComas characterized The Puppet Masters as "a thunderously exciting melodrama of intrigue", noting that Heinlein displayed "not only his usual virtues of clear logic, rigorous detail-work, and mastery of indirect exposition", but also unexpected virtues like "a startling facility in suspense devices [and] a powerful ingenuity in plotting". P. Schuyler Miller, noting that the novel's "climactic situations seem to be telegraphed", suggested that Heinlein presented his background situations so effectively that readers solve the story's mysteries more quickly than Heinlein allowed his characters to. In his "Books" column for F&SF, Damon Knight selected the novel as one of the 10 best SF books of the 1950s.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations 
The theme of the novel is echoed in "The Invisibles", an episode of The Outer Limits aired in 1964, and also in "Operation: Annihilate!", the last episode of the first season of Star Trek in 1967. Similarly, in the story line begun in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Coming of Age" and completed in "Conspiracy", aliens from a faraway sector invade the bodies of high-ranking Starfleet admirals in an attempt to compromise the command structure and spearhead an invasion of Earth.
The novel was adapted, with some plot and character changes, into the screenplay for a 1994 film of the same name starring Donald Sutherland. The film followed the story rather closely except for the setting changed to modern-day, thus losing most of the advanced technology, but it was not successful with either the critics or the public. (Sutherland also starred in the remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another tale of aliens taking over humans.)
The 1998 film The Faculty, directed by Robert Rodriguez from a Kevin Williamson screenplay, is about a fictional high school at which the faculty and staff become taken over by alien parasites. In the film one of the characters mumbles that Jack Finney's 1955 novel The Body Snatchers is "a blatant rip off" of Heinlein's novel. In turn, the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is based on that novel.
Kenneth Von Gunden's 1990 novel Starspawn takes the same basic premise into a Medieval setting: England in the time of the Third Crusade is secretly invaded by parasites from space who attach themselves to knights and gain control of castles, and whose plot is eventually foiled by a wise and dedicated monk.
See also