Title: The Puppet Masters
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Doubleday (1951)
Genre: Adult science fiction and action
Length: 175 pages (reasonable)
Rating: 3.5 tweaks out of 5
Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is a classic, genre-defining novel that gave birth to a legion of other stories about aliens arriving on earth and enslaving the human race. It is definitely worth reading, if only to see what Heinlein predicted back in 1951 and to get a taste of how the people back then envisioned their world, the universe, and the future. Personally, there were aspects of writing style that I picked up on and hope to employ in my own work. The few issues I had with the novel could be credited to the times in which it was written.
In The Puppet Masters, “Sam” is an agent in the employ of a secret intelligence organization that protects the United States of America and answers only to the president. He goes on a mission with his boss, the “Old Man,” and “Mary,” a red-headed beauty and equally dangerous agent. Their objective: To investigate reports of a flying saucer that landed in Iowa. What they find is, to all appearances, a prank. However, they can smell that something is fishy, and they notice people are acting strangely and wearing mysterious humps on their shoulders. So begins the war between humans and Titans, the slug-like parasitic aliens from a Saturnalian moon. Sam plays a vital role in defense and eventually offense against the Titans in a quick, energetic read.
To writers in the 1940’s and 50’s, the solar system and the universe provided a fertile garden for creatures and ideas. Every planet had life forms, including Venus and Mars, and humans travelled freely between them. On the future Earth, cars fly, cosmetic surgery takes seconds, phones are implanted, and marriage is a financial transaction. Heinlein made some very interesting predictions about technology and society. As a sci-fi writer, I hope to make similar leaps so that someone reading my work sixty years from now can laugh or nod in wonder.
I most enjoyed Heinlein’s skill in keeping his narrative bouncing along. The Puppet Masters races forward at breakneck speed, with minimal description. That’s not to say that it was lacking in anything. Heinlein managed to describe just enough, keeping my imagination alight with visions of flying cars, heater guns, and alien races. His dialogue and narrative voice are sharp and witty, and he doesn’t spend time in long conversations. The plot itself suffers from no issues that I saw. Everything is tight and makes sense, and carries the reader to a satisfying ending.
The biggest issue that I had was that the female protagonist, Mary, goes from a dangerous secret agent to a meek and fragile wife character in the snap of Heinlein’s fingers. Her dialogue drops from witty repartee to repetitions of “Yes, dear.” This was disappointing for me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering the time period. Perhaps in conjunction with this issue was the lack of strong characters. Sam was a sturdy fellow, as was the Old Man, but everyone else was faded, leaving me somewhat dissatisfied.
Those were small irritations, though. I recommend The Puppet Masters to anyone who enjoys science fiction and uncomplicated adventure.
Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907 – May 8, 1988) was an American science fiction writer. Often called the “dean of science fiction writers”, he was one of the most influential and controversial authors of the genre in his time. He set a standard for scientific and engineering plausibility, and helped to raise the genre’s standards of literary quality.
He was one of the first science fiction writers to break into mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. He was one of the best-selling science fiction novelists for many decades. He, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke are known as the “Big Three” of science fiction.