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 repeatedly makes explicit the analogy between the mind-controlling parasites and the Communist Russians, echoing the emerging Red Scare in the U.S.
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. In a world possessing Communications Satellites (not to mention the Internet) the invasion could not have proceeded the way Heinlein describes it.
The invaders are known by a variety of names: "parasites", which accurately describes their biological function but seems mainly unused in official publications; "slugs", from their shape, which becomes the most common term in daily speech; "titans", referring to the name of their world of origin, but certainly not to their physical stature; "masters" is what humans controlled by them are made to call them, and sometimes such humans continue to use the term even after being freed ("When I was with the masters"...). The term "puppet masters" of the title only occurs twice in the book itself, including the very last statement where the narrator writes:
"Puppet masters - the free men are coming to kill you!
Death and Destruction!"
The novel begins with this conundrum:
"Sam" is an agent in an intelligence organization within the United States government, so secret it reports only to the President, and is entirely unknown to anyone else. He 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 several other agents fail to report back. With them is another agent named "Mary", a ravishingly 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, it is 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 of their number becomes "hagridden" without them realizing it. However, Mary can spot infected men, because they don't react to her beauty as normal men do, so the infected agent is unmasked, subdued and confined. The slug escapes by transferring to another person, and eventually to Sam himself. He immediately disappears and begins operating as an enemy agent.
Meanwhile, the invasion continues to expand. Coded telephone calls to Iowa result in the arrival of containers through the mail. These contain more slugs, which are used 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 recruited the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, a man who has access to 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 face reality. 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 slugs are not limited by the numbers that can arrive from Titan. Instead of taking over key people, they have absorbed the entire human population of the occupied territory. They must be able to reproduce rapidly. The invasion is not an occupying force – it is an epidemic! He returns to HQ too late to stop a meticulously planned military counterinvasion of the heartland; it vanishes without trace, as soldiers enter apparently "peaceful" cities, only to fall victim to possession, after which they lure their comrades in with fake communications.
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. Also, the aliens now understand sexual responses, and can no longer be detected by their absence.
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 by a slug which rides a local pet cat, and then transfers to Mary. Sam has to subdue her in a fight between two trained killers, in which he has to keep her alive and she is going all out to kill him. The fight is complicated by the fact that this slug is not merely an amorphous mass but protected by a leathery covering-he cannot just crush it. He only succeeds by pushing Mary on to a hot fire to kill the slug, badly burning both of them in the process.
Returning to HQ for treatment, they find that a new law requires everyone to be virtually naked. It is enforced by vigilantes who shoot first and confirm later. Even Mary's bandages have to come off before they can move freely.
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 throughout the population of 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.
Patched up, 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 activates long-suppressed memories from when she was a child in a Venus colony which was taken over by slugs. She herself spent years in one of the tanks. The takeover failed for an unknown reason, and Mary survived a disease which killed her slug.
The Old Man has planned all this to discover the nature of the disease. Sam objects to having Mary used in this way and starts taking over the investigation. 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 always knew that Sam would be ready to replace him one day, and would show it by bucking 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 USA.
The counterattack 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 stage 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 and, apparently, his father.
In the final section, Sam writes in a journal before embarking with Mary on a ship which will take the battle to its source, Titan. The Old Man recovered from his injuries, and remains on Earth. The slugs will be 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.
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". She can carry a small arsenal of weapons despite having no apparent place to conceal them. Her hard exterior conceals psychological scars from the encounter with the slugs as a child. Only the Old Man knows all 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 has been waiting for Sam to take over by usurping his authority. Only then will he be satisfied that Sam is ready. 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".)
and closes with this stirring, humanocentric declaration:
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 ask her name; the version published in 1951 omitted all mention of her.)
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 0345330145 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 p. 1 reading "With the Soviets..."
In Chapter XXVII, Heinlein recounts in passing the names of the crew of an amphibious tank, killed while fighting the invaders: "The tank was commanded by Ensign Gilbert Calhoun of Knoxville; with him were Powerman 2/c Florence Berzowski and a gunner named Booker T.W. Johnson".
This detailed choice of names (for characters very marginal for the overall plot) was clearly designed to carry a message: the commander is a white southerner with the family name of John C. Calhoun, a prominent 19th Century advocate of slavery; the gunner is black, named for Booker T. Washington; and the powerman has a typical Polish American name - all of them fighting together, dying together heroically and in death providing the main characters with the chance to gather vital information leading to the final defeat of the invaders. Heinlein actually used such subtlety in a number of his books. For example, both Friday (of Friday) and Eunice (of I Will Fear No Evil) are dark skinned, but this descriptive fact is hidden, only identified by a single sentence in the course of each of the books. All the rest of the picturing of the character is generally left to the reader. The cover of the initial paperback release of Friday contained artwork completely at odds with this)
The novel was adapted, with some plot and character changes, into the screenplay for a 1994 film of the same name starring Donald Sutherland. Although the film followed the story rather closely (except for references to Venus or Titan) 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 novel The Body Snatchers is "a blatant rip off" of Heinlein's novel. In turn, the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers is based on that novel.
"The Section" is an "in crowd" nickname for the intelligence agency for which Sam works, like "The Circus" in John Le Carre books; its official name, if any, is never mentioned.
It is never made clear why it was considered necessary to bypass the CIA and FBI and create this new service, without even officially notifying the earlier agencies. Evidently, as the possibility of alien invasion was not considered at the time of its creation, it had to do with the six decades old Cold War.
The Section very strongly bears the stamp of the Old Man's personality, and is highly centralized with himself taking all important decisions (Edgar Hoover's founding and running of the FBI might have served as a model). The Old Man had come in with the current administration; when the incumbent President had been an investigating senator, The Old Man was "a key man in his investigations" - which means that The Section was established after 2004, if the President is on his first term, or after 2000 if he on the second; the reference to Sam having spent a total of three years as an undercover agent "behind the curtain" points to the latter possibility being more likely.
Unlike the FBI and CIA, the Section is authorized to act both within US territory and abroad. Its Director expects agents, when ordered, to shoot and kill US citizens in US territory - which they do. The Section's very existence is kept secret, its headquarters and various branches are carefully camouflaged. Its creation and continued existence had not been reported to or authorized by Congress. Appropriations for it are "blanketed into the budget of the Department of Food Resources" and agents are paid in cash.
These unauthorized appropriations seem to be fairly large. As well as extensive undercover operations in Soviet territory, the Section maintains a large and well-equipped headquarters, including its own laboratories, and can move to another location at short notice (obvioulsy, a complicated and expensive logistics operation) when the original offices have become compromised. It has a network of disguised branches over the US (the existence of a branch at Des Moines, when there was no reason to assume any emergency would break out there, indicates a wide spread over the different regions of the US).
All of this might create constitutional issues which, in the quick sweep of events, are not given attention. It is noteworthy that the President is mentioned as having trouble in Congress, including from Members of his own (unnamed) party, and that when the alien-possessed Senator Gottlieb calls for the President's impeachment, the other Senators - most of whom are not possessed - regard it a serious and plausible suggestion.
Indeed, the events of chapter XII - i.e. members of a security service, which the president created without any authorization, assaulting Members of Congress and pulling guns on them in the very middle of a joint session - might, in other circumstances, have provided ample grounds for impeachment. Naturally, once the President and the Old Man have proven their point and conclusively shown that there was indeed an alien invasion in progress, all such issues become moot.
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