Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Puppet Masters By Robert A. Heinlein

Here's another review of classic science fiction novels that are either up on the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

There are a lot of ways to look at Heinlein's classic, The Puppet Masters: as a perfect example of what makes a 'Heinlein' book (a determined uberman, a fiery female, sparkling language, etc), an ideal cold-war parable (US vs relentless, soul-sucking invaders out to turn us into mindless slaves), or as an examination of classic paranoia (who can you trust?), but for this review let's take a look at The Puppet Masters as a book about hunting dragons.

No, there are no dragons in The Puppet Masters. Set in a near future US after a limited nuclear war, the book is about a covert alien invasion -- a rarity for Heinlein -- by 'slugs:' parasitic lifeforms that control their human hosts. In this way it's a perfect companion to Jack Finney's Body Snatchers: an unearthly threat not just to our world but to our sense of identity. With Finney the aliens impersonated the people around us; with The Puppet Masters the aliens control everyone around us -- two sides of a similar coin.

But while Finney approached the theme with sly terror and sneaky suspense, Heinlein puts us in the shoes of 'Sam' an opperative for a so-secret-no-one-knows-about-it-but-the-presdient organization simply called 'The Section' -- run with an iron fist by 'The Old Man' -- that discovers and then fights against the invading parasites.

This is what makes the book so interesting. Sure it has Heinlein's fun use of language, a tough-but-not-robotic hero, a flamboyant female character, and his always-interesting social commentary (some so subtle as to escape everyone but a very determined reader); absolutely it works as a Cold War analogy with its war between unique identity and faceless uniformity; and, certainly, it works as a paranoiac mind-game where you literally cannot trust anyone; but then there is the dragon.

What I mean is 'dragon' in the Nietzsche sense: "The man who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon." Sure "Sam" is our hero but he is also a victim of his own organization's ruthlessness: he cannot remember his original face, for instance, for his so many disguises and alterations. The "Section" reads less like a 'boy's own hero' bunch of freedom fighters than it does a Kafka nightmare bureu of manipulation of everyone and everything. Sure the 'slugs' are nasty, evil, horrible creatures, but reading through the book a niggling suspicion rises that the forces that are working against them are ... well, if not as bad then are just a different flavor.

This devilish gray area of what makes the book so enjoyable -- in a dark and disturbing way. Reading The Puppet Masters you come away with the unsettling feeling that Heinlein's mind-controlling 'Masters' may mean creatures from outer space, our own ruthlessly cold determination to stop them or ... well, both.

No comments: