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Heinlein had two early novels: his unpublished For Us, the Living, and his regrettably published Sixth Column.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)

Book Review: Farnham’s Freehold

We have the potential, each of us individually and in our species and society as a whole, to do great good as well as great evil. Anyone can be a slave or a master if we allow the liberal values and civilized trappings we’ve painstakingly built up over human history to slip back just a little. It takes effort and slow, steady social improvement to overcome our worst natures. [And there’s] nothing natural or inevitable about one ethnic group being on top and another being on the bottom, as even a cursory study of the history of nations makes clear.

For a taste of Heinlein’s dark side, read on for a little about Farnham’s Freehold.

Book Review: Robert A. Heinlein, Vol 2

To even casual readers of science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein needs no introduction, but he made waves outside the genre as well. His three most famous and controversial books managed to scandalize or offend an amazing number of otherwise non-overlapping demographics.
Read my full review at the Winnipeg Free Press.

More Heinlein

Starman Jones, another rousing adventure tale with nevertheless a bit more edge to it, as bildungsromans must needs have. Romance! Danger! The caprices of fate! No guarantee of a happy ending!

I’ve previously posted about this, but with my current limited series on Heinlein at GMR, it made sense to shine the spotlight again on a review from a couple of years ago. Therefore see here for a little sketch of where Starman Jones fits in the scheme of Heinlein and the Scribner juveniles, which comprise much, though not all, of the material I’m reviewing there over the next couple of months. That brief introductory post ends, of course, with a link to the review proper, also available right here, should you fear switching domains for some reason.

Book Review: The Rolling Stones

There are a number of influences and traditions to parse in this novel. Obviously, it’s Golden Age, 1950s hard science fiction, which means rocket ships, other planets, aliens, et cetera. The technical details are explored with relish. Modern literacy research suggests young males are more likely to be reluctant readers than girls, and one solution is to let them read what they want, which is often technical non-fiction about vehicles or space rather than fictional stories about people and emotions. Heinlein apparently already had that figured out 60+ years ago.

Green Man Review will be publishing my coverage of the recent batch of Heinlein novels I requested from Baen, and will be making it an ongoing series. First read my introductory post, then my first review, quoted above, of The Rolling Stones.

Thanks, Baen

Somewhat out of the blue last week, I found myself thinking of picking up some Heinlein. Maybe it was because I’d recently started a re-read of Jumper (just finished tonight). I went back through my own reviews and realized the last couple of Heinlein books I’d read (a novel and a double-collection) were a good two years ago, when I went on a review request spree just before leaving for Costa Rica, and spent the next few months working through it all during the rainy, tropical days.

The Heinlein books I had requested from Baen Books, which does a lot of military fiction, but after covering those, I haven’t asked for anything from them since. (I was assigned Bujold’s latest some time after that but didn’t get it from directly contacting the publisher myself.)

I went back to Baen last week to see the new Heinlein releases they’d made available in the last couple years, and fired off a quick email requesting five books. I found a mid-sized package in the mail today and there was every single thing I’d asked for.

Baen, I think I love you.

I have a pretty decent-sized Heinlein collection already, including a couple of omnibuses from the Science Fiction Book Club which sometimes contain two, three, or four short novels in one volume. But I wish now that all of them were Baen editions, because with their steady release of new editions, they also get some nice intros and closing remarks, the latter from various individuals, the former from Heinlein’s biographer, William Patterson, who always has some interesting tidbits about the history of the writing of the work in question.

I started reading one of the juveniles tonight. With this latest batch, I have nearly every Scribner book, and the one major middle-period work my collection was missing. Expect to see reviews over the next few months as I’m able to cram the reading in. The old grandmaster has a way of fitting into the smallest cracks of time, so I don’t expect it will take long.

Waiting for Books in the Era of Instant Gratification

The nice thing about reviewing books is, in those rare cases I’m really feeling, shall we say, antsy about an upcoming book release, I can almost certainly get a copy weeks, if not months, before its actual release. It’s the literary equivalent of a backstage pass, except not being really like that at all.

Frankly, aside from the long-worn off novelty, this doesn’t usually matter in any case. I’m always behind in my book reading, so what’s the rush to add to the pile? There are a few titles, however, that I genuinely am impatient for, and you know what? Sucks to be me, because I still have to wait, and wait good.

William H. Patterson wrote an excellent biography on Robert Heinlein, and even though it approached 1000 pages and had lots of end notes, I immediately wanted to jump into Volume Two. The problem, Volume Two was still in manuscript form and far from its publication date. So I’ve waited, and waited, and waited. Every few months I pop over to Patterson’s seldom updated blog to see the progress, if any.

And now? Finally we’re at a point where an actual publication date might be settled on in the next couple of months. The book will probably be out in 2014. Yes, I’ll be going after an early copy. But they haven’t even copy-edited it yet. I’m not getting that early of a copy.

On the fiction side of things? Lev Grossman wrote a book called The Magicians that I heard a little something about and thought sounded kind of interesting but it wasn’t enough for me to actually seek it out, especially as the particular review I first saw was a little mixed (though a good reviewer gives the reader a sense of what the book is like and allows for a prospective reader to recognize if there’s something they might like even if it wasn’t to the reviewer’s taste).

It came up for review along with its newly-released sequel, which was even better, and I devoured both. Extremely readable, fresh, and with the hallmarks of true classics. Two or three years have gone by and I think Grossman has just now started writing the conclusion of the trilogy this year. Hurry up, won’t you? But also, make sure you take your time and don’t screw it up. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?

Then there’s Murakami, the Japanese writer with an English fan-base most native speakers wish they had. It’s great being a fan of a foreign-language author, because you get to hear about his latest Tokyo book launches and how great this new novel is and what the critics are all saying and you get all jazzed up and then you wait two years for the translation. Awesome.

See you in 2014, English version of 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年. Unless I die before then.

Book Review: Starman Jones

Baen Books has been releasing new editions of Robert A. Heinlein works for over a decade, at a steadily increasing pace. So far this has included about half of the famed Heinlein juveniles, originally written for Scribner between 1947 and 1958. The latest from Baen is Starman Jones, first published in 1953.

Like other RAH reprints from Baen, Starman Jones includes an introduction from William H. Patterson, Jr. putting the novel in the context of the time and with respect to Heinlein’s other works. I already knew from Patterson’s biography of the grandmaster that Heinlein was consciously influenced by Horatio Alger, a nineteenth-century writer of adventure stories for boys.

Like Alger, Heinlein strove to provide moral training for the young people (especially young men) of his generation. The recurring moral theme of Heinlein’s juveniles (and many of his later adult novels as well) includes such prescriptions as “hard work pays off,” “honesty is the best policy,” and “study hard,” amongst others. By all accounts, Heinlein truly lived and espoused these values, and such universal lessons lend these books greater staying power than some of his more overtly political works.

One thing I didn’t realize, however, was that Heinlein had taken the basic plot for Starman Jones from a real-life event. If you wish to avoid all spoilers, you’ll want to skip over this next (quoted) paragraph, and Patterson’s introduction, as well. In Heinlein’s own words (as quoted by Patterson from the Heinlein Archive at UC Santa Cruz):

“This book was written without an outline from a situation in the early nineteenth century. Two American teenagers took off in a sail boat, were picked up by a China clipper, were gone two years — and returned to Boston with one of them in command.”

Heinlein took that same basic situation and turned it into space opera. At the novel’s opening, our hero, Max Jones (his precise age isn’t given but he seems to be in his late teens) is a farm boy, working the land hard each day to provide for himself and his widowed, but irresponsible step-mother. When she comes home with a new husband, known by everyone in town as a drunk and a lout, announcing that they’ve sold the farm, Max decides his filial duties are over. He leaves the farm with not much more than the clothes on his back and a vague plan of getting into space.

Ultimately, Max finds a friend in the older and wiser Sam, a roguish character with a penchant for bending the rules, but a good heart, and the two of them scam their way onto a starship. Through a series of unlikely but plausibly-written events, Max manages to rise higher and higher in the chain of command. When disaster strikes, his talents turn out to be crucial to saving the ship, its passengers, and his fellow crew members.

Heinlein’s earliest novels did read very much like early “boys adventure stories,” with two-dimensional characters and pulp-novel situations. Books like Rocket Ship Galileo and Space Cadets weren’t bad, mind you. But they weren’t great. By the time he was writing Farmer in the Sky and Starman Jones, however, Heinlein was in the groove.

RAH didn’t apologize for a certain degree of formula in these stories, an update of Alger’s from a century earlier: a young man from a modest background, through the virtues of hard work, a bit of luck, and (uniquely, in Starman Jones) perhaps taking some liberties with the truth to get his foot in the door, eventually proves his mettle and resourcefulness and saves the day. Hey, it’s a good formula.

I haven’t read any of Horatio Alger’s books, but other comparisons spring to mind. A young lad on ship, starting at the bottom rung, eventually saving the day — sounds like Treasure Island, albeit without the treasure. In fact, Max Jones bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Jim Hawkins, each having lost a father, each finding a friend and role model in someone of dubious morals, Sam Anderson being Heinlein’s stand-in for Long John Silver.

Yet, though less obvious than the Robert Louis Stephenson comparison, I found myself thinking more frequently of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during Max’s interstellar adventures. Max Jones is, like most of Heinlein’s scrupulously honest young protagonists, very much more of a straight-arrow than the uncivilized Huck ever was, but he still finds it necessary to lie in order to get a fair shot. For the protagonist of a Heinlein juvenile to profit by something like falsifying shipboard documents is unusual enough to be worth mentioning, and reminds me more than a little of Huck, who had little need for civilization or rules but had little trouble determining right from wrong.

Mark Twain had something to say in his book about the difference between morality and law, particularly with respect to slavery and discrimination; Robert Heinlein had a similar bone to pick as well. The SF Grandmaster’s targets were the unions who, he thought, sought to trample the downtrodden, and make the rich richer. Standing in for them in this novel is an exclusive hereditary guild system, making it almost impossible to get into space if you don’t know the right people. (This is a major plot point in the story, forcing Jones’ hand in the deception.) It seems to me that Heinlein, politically very different in many ways, sought the same sort of social equality and freedom that Twain had, some 70 years earlier.

And it’s these universal themes that make him still so readable. True, the technological aspects haven’t aged well. On the one hand Heinlein describes precision, supersonic bullet trains that never touch the ground. On the other hand, ship’s crew perform calculations by hand and feed the answers into antique computers for interstellar jumps.

Yet I’ll wager that most modern readers will suspend their disbelief on these points. The well-realized characters and smooth plotting represent this writer at his best. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about most of the ideas in this novel; it’s just a solid adventure tale (with a subtle moral undercurrent) that’s as fun to read today as it was 60 years ago. But with no larger goal than that in mind, Heinlein wrote a classic.

(Baen Books, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review