Christy's Reviews > The Puppet Masters

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein
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's review
Nov 30, 2007

it was ok
bookshelves: science-fiction-and-fantasy, science-fiction-institute-list

** spoiler alert ** Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters is both an action-oriented adventure story about parasitic slug aliens attempting to take over the world and its citizens and social commentary on Communism and the Red Scare. As such, it appeals to young adult readers, who are looking for excitement and aliens, and to the general populace of the early 1950s, who would recognize the paranoia and militarism as part of the broader culture of the time.

This book, like Wylie's The Disappearance, is very much a book of its time, first in its Cold War references to the Iron Curtain and Russia, and second in its characterization of women and of gender roles. This comment made by Sam, the protagonist, is typical of the attitudes expressed toward Russia: "I wondered why the titans [the parasitic aliens] had not attacked Russia first; Stalinism seemed tailormade for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make; the people behind the Curtain had had their minds enslaved and parasites riding them for three generations. There might not be two kopeks difference between a commissar with a slug and a commissar without a slug" (205). It reflects clearly the divide between the East and the West and makes unmistakably clear the connection between the alien parasites and Communists. Later still, after the United States population has become fully aware of the problem and measures have been taken to protect them by curtailing their freedoms and increasing security, Sam describes the country as "undergoing a Terror. Friend might shoot friend, or wife denounce husband. Rumor of a titan could drum up a mob on any street, with Old Judge Lynch baying in their van. . . . The fact that most of the rumored discoveries of slugs were baseless made the rumors no less dangerous" (254). This description sounds very much like the effects of the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s. Just as the slugs are "puppet masters," taking over the free will and the lives of humans, so, according to this novel, are Communists puppet masters of their citizens, whose "puppet strings are always at hand" (262).

In terms of gender roles, although Heinlein's future society (the book is set in 2007) includes some societal changes that should affect gender roles and relations, such as new ways of approaching marriage (short-term, renewable, or permanent marriage licenses, for instance), the chief female character, Mary, undercuts this apparent progressive attitude toward gender roles. Mary is always little more than a sex object or a wife. When Sam first meets her, for instance, she is described as extremely desirable (in what is the weirdest description of a supposedly sexually attractive woman I think I have ever read): "A long, lean body, but unquestionably and pleasingly mammalian. Good legs. Broad shoulders for a woman. Flaming, wavy red hair and the real redheaded saurian bony structure to her skull. Her face was handsome rather than beautiful; her teeth were sharp and clean" (4-5). Although the next few sentences make it clear that Sam wants to jump her bones, this description is disturbingly like a description of livestock. Furthermore, although she, like Sam, is a field agent, and a very good one, even better than Sam perhaps, her contributions to the narrative eventually deteriorate to the point where all she says is "Yes, dear." Stay here; go back; have a baby; go with me to fight aliens on a faraway planet--to all of these things, she says "Yes dear." Having said that she is a good field agent, however, it must be pointed out that her primary skill seems to be flirting. Her job for the first half of the book is to act sexy around men and see if they respond. If they don't, bam! They must be slug-infested slaves. In fact, she tells Sam after their marriage that fists are not her weapons. Sam reflects, "I knew that she did not mean that guns were her weapons; she meant something older and more primitive. True, she could fight like a bad-tempered Kodiak bear and I respected her for it, but she was no Amazon. An Amazon doesn't look that way with her head on a pillow. Mary's true strength lay in her other talents" (220).

This book is frequently marketed to young adult readers and I have read several reviews that say that although they wouldn't re-read it as an adult, they would recommend it to an adolescent reader, especially adolescent boys. I would not. These ideas about women and sex roles simply permeate the book and most young readers are not equipped to deconstruct them.

A final element of the book and another reason I wouldn't give this to a young reader is the militarism of the ending. The final chapter of the book sees Sam and Mary packing up to go to Titan and finish off the rest of the slug parasites so they cannot return and attack again in the future. While that's a sensible goal given the situation, the ideology in which it is steeped is troubling. Sam says, of this goal, "Whether we make it or not, the human race has got to keep up its well-earned reputation for ferocity. If the slugs taught us anything, it was that the price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time, and with utter recklessness" (338). He continues, saying, "Well, if Man wants to be top dog--or even a respected neighbor--he'll have to fight for it. Beat the plowshares back into swords; the other was a maiden aunt's fancy" (338). Freedom, according to Heinlein, is only to be found at the muzzle of a gun and pacifism is no more than a silly woman's dream. Not only that, but it is humankind's place to be fierce and not only to be respected but to be in charge. This complements American patriotism and nationalism too well for it not to be a problem, especially given the lessons we should have learned over the last few years. The final lines of the book complete the image of glory-seeking freedom fighters: "We are about to transship. I feel exhilarated. Puppet masters--the free men are coming to kill you! Death and Destruction!" (340). Given the political climate of the time, this furthers the separation between East and West, "puppet masters" and "free," and justifies the ongoing Cold War and its attendant curtailments of freedom. Given our current political climate, it does much the same, only exchanging Communist puppet masters with Islamic terrorist leaders.
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Reading Progress

November 30, 2007 – Shelved
November 30, 2007 – Shelved as: science-fiction-and-fantasy
November 30, 2007 – Shelved as: science-fiction-institute-list
Started Reading
June 24, 2008 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-1)

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Manny Great review of a bad book. I love your analysis, especially the part about the Mary character.

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