Book Review: The Puppet Masters

Because I’m a reader and have always been a reader, I have many, many to-read lists. I hear about yet another must-read author and think, perhaps a little wistfully, “one day. . .” So, certainly I was aware of the existence of a person named Heinlein for some time before I finally started to get to know his work, belatedly in my 20s.

Or at least so I had thought. Only after several years of reading Heinlein did I realize that I had indeed had a childhood introduction to him after all. The Puppet Masters, starring Donald Sutherland, came out when I was 12, and I vaguely remember seeing at least some of it on TV a little while after that.

So now, having read at least half of Heinlein’s corpus (and the majority of the good stuff, by most accounts), it comes full circle, and I revisit the first Heinlein story I ever encountered, but this time in his own words.

Heinlein had two early novels: his unpublished For Us, the Living, and his regrettably published Sixth Column. The Puppet Masters is a first, however. It’s Heinlein’s first adult novel that was any good. And a horror novel, of all things. Science fictional horror, to be sure, and with Heinlein’s inimitable voice, through and through, but still.

Apparently his wife, Ginny, hated it. Icky aliens that take over people’s brains and walk their bodies around like, well, puppets? Not her thing. I can appreciate that. It really is the stuff of nightmares.

It’s also a fairly big metaphor that Heinlein made no secret of. The Red Menace: Communism with a capital C, and American-born traitors in every neighbourhood, walking around like everybody else, like they’re real people. Remember this book was written in the McCarthy era and Heinlein was patriotic to a fault.

This context is interesting but it’s still a real novel, with reasonably well-developed characters and a decent plot that actually works without having to be a metaphor for anything. In fact, taken on its merits as science fiction, The Puppet Masters seems biologically very cutting-edge compared to the pod people of the more famous Invasion of the Body Snatchers film that came out later. Minus the usual minimally-dated elements, this early Heinlein novel could have easily been written today. It really is way ahead of its time.

In fact this novel could have (should have?) been a game-changer for Heinlein. He wrote it in 1951, when he was just beginning to establish himself as a strong juvenile writer, and this was an early success that almost became a career-defining one. The Puppet Masters was poised to become a Hollywood blockbuster before a blatant rip-off of the story beat it to the theatres and killed Heinlein’s movie deal.

If things had gone differently, especially considering the success of Destination Moon, Heinlein might have built up real momentum as a Hollywood icon and had a very different sort of writing career. In an alternate universe, the name Heinlein might have been uttered in the same breath as, not Asimov and Clarke, but Kubrick and Hitchcock. He might never have written Starship Troopers, Stranger, or Mistress. Yet I have to wonder what cinematic masterpieces he might have created instead, and whether they might have been as influential and enduring in their own way.

(Baen, 2009)