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Heinlein had two early novels: his unpublished For Us, the Living, and his regrettably published Sixth Column.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

What’s Up and Such

Recent readings: I finally got around to reading Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, start to finish, which I’d had on my shelf for a few years already (pretty good). I’ve also been reading some Bradbury just over the last few weeks, specifically Something Wicked This Way Comes and his A Sound of Thunder collection, and I’ve come to appreciate how beautiful his use of language is, something I didn’t really pick up on when I read him as a teenager.

I’ve also been looking at some Asian-themed fiction of late, though no recent releases. It’s been years since I’ve read Shōgun and I’d been thinking I should finally read Tai-Pan this year (also by James Clavell), but of course it’s a bit of a door-stopper. So instead I started with the much shorter The Ronin (quite good), have just started dipping into the equally short Bridge of Birds, and have been thinking I might do Musashi after that before Tai Pan. Of course I’ll be jumping around a bit, not knocking these off one after the other without a break.

(And now that I think of it, there is one recent item on my radar in this “genre”: Murakami’s new novel just came out. I haven’t picked it up yet. I forgot about it until the last-minute and so wasn’t able to place a review and, thus, didn’t request an ARC.)

Obviously I’ve read several Heinlein books recently, for my coverage at Green Man Review and I do have one more to take care of soonish, though that’s a weekend read at most.

And there’s an eclectic mix of other stuff I’ve started or planned on starting over the last couple of months, including Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series (looking for that third volume in the second-hand stores still) and a few non-fiction titles. I’ve got a nice little pile on my night table, but the difficulty is when something new pops up in the mailbox and jumps the queue, as it were. Raincoast, which distributes for Tor (and many others), is one of the worst offenders for sending me big boxes of wonderful ARCs, meant to tempt me from whatever I’m doing and into a good book and, often, the ensuing, unplanned review. Of course there are worse problems to have than a surplus of delicious boks.

But, yes, I have been reading at a pretty good clip of late, and I’m pleased about that. For nearly the first half of this year, I just couldn’t find the time. But I’m in a bit of a groove lately. I suppose I’ve cut back on the television a fair bit, since, brief vacation aside, my work hours haven’t dropped a whole lot (even with the aforementioned turning down of work). Not all of my writing work is downright exciting. Occasionally it can border on (or enter right into) tedium.

Literature is the great escape, even for, or perhaps especially for a working writer.

Book Review: Lock In

And now, as Rocky (of & Bullwinkle fame) would say, for something completely different. American novelist and blogger John Scalzi has taken a break from his long-running Old Man’s War series to pen a diverting stand-alone near-future sci-fi detective thriller.

My full review ran in the WFP yesterday. The five-syllable or less summary: it’s pretty good. The top spot for Scalzi novels I still assign to Old Man’s War itself, but that’s a pretty difficult one to dislodge, so that’s no sleight. After all, I put it in a category with Heinlein’s original Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s brilliant The Forever War, august but appropriate company, to be sure.

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: Strange Bedfellows

It’s true. Science fiction by its very nature has a political stance, one which, hypothetically, can vary infinitely with the author, but which is, in practice, overwhelmingly rationalist, humanist, and socially progressive (though a bastion of conservative and libertarian voices also exists).

Read my full review of the modern political science fiction anthology at AE.

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.

Book Review: Blind Lake

I’ve said plenty about the heart-breaking humanity of Wilson’s writing. All that goes without saying here; the writing and story are both up to the standards set in The Chronoliths and Spin. What I’ve emphasized less are his bona fides as a deep-thinking, hard science fiction writer. It’s almost invisible. Because of his very literary style — showing not telling, focusing on human actions, interactions, and reactions — the poorly camouflaged info-dump simply doesn’t exist here.

Read my full review at AE.