The Puppet Masters
First edition cover
|Author||Robert A. Heinlein|
|Genre||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).
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.
The setting is the early 21st century (the first scene is in 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, and the sharp Sino-Soviet breach of the late 1950s had not happened. A casual reference to Kurdish as one of the languages which an agent "behind the curtain" finds useful indicates that the Soviets have at some time taken over some Kurdish-speaking areas.
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 rayguns and personal flying cars are commonplace. Space stations exist and colonies have been established on the planet Venus.
Space technology is far more advanced than in the actual first decade of the 21st century. For example, in the last scene, a space warship is sent on a twelve-year trip to Titan, with not only life-support for a large crew but also enough armaments - presumably nuclear - to all by itself confront an entire world. However, communications satellites have not been thought of, 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.
"Sam" is an agent in "Section", a secret intelligence organization that reports directly to the U.S. president. 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. With them is another agent named "Mary", a 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. The slug decomposes in transit and they are unable to convince the president that there is an invasion.
To find more evidence, Sam leads a small team back to Iowa where one of the agents becomes "hagridden" without the others noticing. Mary knows something is wrong when the agent does not react to her allure like a normal male. The slug is exposed, subdued and confined, but escapes by transferring to Sam who immediately becomes enslaved and flees the agency.
The invasion progresses rapidly. Slugs are shipped through the mail to distribution centers where they are attached to victims. Gradually they infect 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 one 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 that it can be interrogated. Sam cannot bear the idea, but when Mary volunteers, he gives in and does it himself. While possessed he remains completely conscious, but becomes totally committed to the slugs' cause. The slug reveals under torture 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.
The president becomes convinced of the threat, but it is not until a congressman opposing the president is found to be carrying a slug that other politicians realize the danger. From Minnesota to Louisiana, the center of the country has been taken over. On a reconnaissance mission to Kansas City, Sam is shocked to discover that the number of slugs is much greater than previously thought. Instead of taking over key people, they have possessed the entire human population of the occupied territory. He and the Old Man are unable to persuade the president to call off a meticulously planned military counter-invasion of the heartland; the entire force is taken over by the slugs. It is discovered that the slugs are capable of reproducing by binary fission. The number of infected humans must now be so large that any military action would kill tens of millions.
The problem having grown 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 an open fire to remove 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 effectively naked to show that a slug is not in control. The law is enthusiastically enforced by armed vigilantes.
Sam starts 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 know how valuable he is. Some scientists speculate that the slugs are really just one organism in many bodies.
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. When Mary enters the ship it triggers long-suppressed memories from when she was a child in a failed Venus colony which was taken over by the slugs. She herself spent years in a similar tank. Mary caught a disease, "Nine-day Fever", which kills slugs faster than humans. A plan is devised to spread the fever among the slugs using "direct conference", and then treat as many humans as possible before they die.
Diseases erupt in the infected areas, as the slugs neglect hygiene and often work 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 people, 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.
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.
- 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 beautiful, 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.
- 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".)
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 Science Fiction. For the Galaxy version, editor H.L. Gold also did extensive rewriting, to which Heinlein strenuously objected.
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.
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 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.
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, the character Stokely mentions 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.
- The Puppet Masters title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- The Puppet Masters as serialized in Galaxy parts 1, 2, and 3 at the Internet Archive