The science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein became, by the second half of the twentieth century, the gold standard by which the genre was measured. Along with his friend Isaac Asimov and British author Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein became one of the “big three” writers of English-language science fiction in the twentieth century.
Heinlein’s specialty was twofold: the well-engineered, scientifically plausible exposition of future technologies, and his success at weaving those technologies into his fiction unobtrusively. He also was recognized as one of the pioneers in the integration of the social sciences into science fiction, and many of the major themes of his fiction concern social issues: individual liberty, the nature of authority and civil disobedience, nonconformity, sexual and religious morality, and the role of the military in society. Critics sometimes overstate the importance of sexual, religious, and military themes in Heinlein’s fiction, but his conviction was that all three would be impacted by space travel and that speculative fiction—the term Heinlein preferred for the genre in which he wrote—would not give a complete picture of possible futures if it did not take these themes into account.
The Puppet Masters
One of the marks of this novel’s success is that its plot (human bodies being invaded by aliens who control their minds) has become a cliché, particularly in film. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978; based on the 1955 novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), and The Brain Eaters (1958) are all similar in plot, but Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters preceded them all. In fact, The Brain Eaters so clearly “borrowed” from his 1951 novel that Heinlein sued for plagiarism and won an out-of-court settlement. Readers who can get beyond the echoes of later imitators will find a novel of surprising psychological depth that forces its characters to reevaluate the nature of human relationships.
Like most of its imitators, The Puppet Masters gains much of its energy from the instinctive horror at the thought of another creature controlling a person completely. That horror is not mitigated by knowing that the alien creatures controlling the humans remove any trace of negative feeling about the experience. The first-person narrator of the novel, Elihu Nivens, is a government agent known by his codename Sam, and he is humanity’s last best hope for saving the world from the creatures that attach themselves to the human spinal cord. In the process, Sam’s disgust at the prospect (and at one point the reality) of being controlled by another creature forces him to confront the ways in which the human spirit can be dominated without alien interference—through such cultural bulwarks as filial piety (the head of the secret service agency Sam works for turns out to be Sam’s father), marriage (Sam’s emotional connection with his wife, Mary, also an agent, is used to manipulate him into taking an alien parasite on his back), and religion (Sam wonders if Mary had been a member of a cult known as the Whitmanites)....
(The entire section is 1308 words.)