Monday, August 12, 2013

The Puppet Masters by Robert. A. Heinlein

When Robert A. Heinlein wrote The Puppet Masters the world was a very different place. The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia was still going on and the Iron Curtain (The Wall) had not yet come down. Heinlein envisioned a world were war had taken out sections of the United States in nuclear attacks and the threat of a final blast was still on the agenda.

Into this armed and ready world came the slugs, or Titans as they were called because they came from Titan, one of Saturn's moons 12 light years away. A landing in Iowa was billed as a hoax a day or so after the event and agent Elihu Nivens, the narrator of the story, remembers that most of the UFO sightings during the 1940s and 1950s were hoaxes. The only difference is that this UFO sighting was the real thing pretending to be a hoax so the Masters, sluglike creatures that fasten to a person's back at the base of the neck and sink tendrils into the spine spine and brain to control people.

Elihu, named Sam for the mission to Iowa, his boss and a beautiful young woman named Mary, pretending to be his sister (blast his luck), pose as tourists to check out the situation. They even got as far as the mayor's office and saw that many people, including the mayor, had humps on their back at the shoulders. It didn't take long to figure out the UFO wasn't a hoax and invaders from space were taking over.

The Masters moved silently using the knowledge in people's minds to make their takeover swift and silent. One Master rode Elihu and nearly took over Washington D.C. It was Mary and the boss of the agency, who just happened to be Elihu's father, that caught Elihu and rid him of his Master. Convincing the President and Congress that measures needed to be taken immediately took longer and didn't happen until they saw it personally.

Heinlein didn't predict the sate of the world as we know it now. He didn't accurately predict the future. There are no cell phones, world wide Internet communication, or any of the social situations we live in today. He did, however, think we would have flying cars by now, which we obviously do not, and Russia is no longer a threat, except in more capitalistic terms, since the Wall came down. Heinlein wasn't clairvoyant, but he did know people and psychology and how people react. That is where The Puppet Masters excels.

In Heinlein's eyes, Venus isn't a hell planet with a surface covered by exploding volcanoes and poisonous fumes for air but a lush jungle hothouse capable of sustaining life and we have gone to the stars and colonized Mars and many other moons, including our own. Heinlein knew how we would react and how our democratic system of government would take its time to vote on whether or not to believe in the danger from the stars and deal with it. There is where I find Heinlein's vision of the future accurate.

I read The Puppet Masters about 20 years ago and reading it again was a revelation. I didn't remember all the details, but I do remember the sense of wonder that came as I turned the pages and dove into the America on the page. Heinlein's belief in mankind and his strengths -- and weaknesses -- was nothing less than miraculous. I cheered as the lights in the Red Zone began to go out even though getting rid of the Masters was borrowed from H. G. Wells's defeat of the Martins in War of the Worlds, and too easy. Although the virus that kills the Titan Masters was effective and Elihu and his wife Mary, who held the key to the Masters' defeat, were on their way to Titan to free the moon's native population and kill every last slug, the sense of hope and the promise to take down any species that presumes to eradicate humans before we can do it ourselves is quite stunning.

The Puppet Masters has its failings, but science fiction isn't an exact science. It is the possibility based on one writer's visions and dreams. Heinlein's work is always about the people, the characters of any given situation, and not about predicting the future. People are endlessly fascinating and frustrating but, even after all these years, Heinlein's writing, in spite of its lack of accurate fortune telling, is worth reading, not for the facts, but for what he leaves behind. The very real and flawed characters of the Old Man, Elihu/Sam, and Mary (to a lesser degree). The relationships between the Old Man and Sam is priceless and shows, even before it is revealed, that this is father and son.

One thing more Heinlein reminds us is that special confidence people have that when the excrement hits the revolving blades there is still hope and we, the human race, will still be standing -- and fighting. I rather enjoy Heinlein's vision of the future as I ride around in my flying car en route to the launching station that will take me to new worlds, moons, and planets.

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