Symbiosis in SF: The Puppet Masters
It has to be said: I absolutely adore the ideas of parasitism and symbiosis in science fiction. I have no idea why; I just do. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that I have read a good number of books that deal with these themes. I enjoyed far more of them than I didn’t, and just about all of them have influenced my writing in some capacity. One such book – one of the oldest there is, in fact – is Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.
First of all, the blurb:
First came the news that a flying saucer had landed in Iowa. Then came the announcement that the whole thing was a hoax. End of story. Case closed.
Except that two agents of the most secret intelligence agency in the U.S. government were on the scene and disappeared without reporting back. Then four more follow up agents also disappeared. So the head of the agency and his two top agents went in and managed to get out with their discovery: an invasion is underway by slug-like aliens who can touch a human and completely control his or her mind. What the humans know, they know. What the slugs want, no matter what, the human will do. And most of Iowa is already under their control.
Sam Cavanaugh was one of the agents who discovered the truth. Unfortunately, that was just before he was taken over by one of the aliens and began working for the invaders, with no will of his own. And he has just learned that a high official in the Treasury Department is now under control of the aliens. Since the Treasury Department includes the Secret Service, which safeguards the President of the United States, control of the entire nation is near at hand.
Sound old hat? It should. This is a bodysnatcher invasion played as straight as it can be – understandable when you remember that this book invented the concept. The aliens have full access to their host’s mind and memory and so are able to pass flawlessly as the human they control. This is all standard stuff, and is something that almost everyone will have seen at least once before.
The influence of Heinlein’s novel is undeniable. Without The Puppet Masters, we would perhaps have never had The Bodysnatchers or any of the movies that spawned from it. We’d have maybe never been able to experience Stargate SG1, or Animorphs, or The H…well, you get the idea. For its premise alone, The Puppet Masters is an important piece of science fiction history
The Puppet Masters is clearly a product of its time, its alien slugs being an obvious allegory for the threat of communism. The book is less than subtle about this: at one point, Sam explicitly compares the aliens to Soviet party officers. Cold war-esque paranoia pervades this book’s atmosphere and would have been understood all too well by readers at the time of its original release.
Even by the standards of bodysnatching parasites, the invaders in this book are horrifying. This is not Animorphs, wherein the possessors had a human-like intelligence that could occasionally be reasoned with. Here, the parasites are alien in every way possible. The creatures themselves are only questionably sapient and seem to absorb the personality and intelligence of their current host. Furthermore, the parasites manipulate human minds to make them almost want to be controlled. The protagonist spends a good few pages under the creatures’ thrall, thereby providing readers with a chilling glimpse into how their hosts think.
Something else worth mentioning is that the issue of biochemical obstacles, though largely handwaved, is at least acknowledged. Human-riding slugs are incompatible with the creatures that manned their spaceships and, likewise, the slugs riding these other aliens are incapable of surviving on any animal from Earth. It’s a minor point, certainly, but it is one that is ignored much too often.
Does the book stand the test of time? Almost. The subject matter seems clichéd nowadays, sure, but this book manages to be sufficiently creepy to work regardless. The book is well written and moves at a quick yet steady pace, making it a fast read in spite of its large length. That is, if you can overlook one single issue.
This book, put simply, contains some seriously dated views on romantic relationships. Early on, we are introduced to Mary, who is another agent in Sam’s organisation. She is quickly established to be an excellent combatant and, indeed, an exceptional agent in general. To cut a long story short, a romance ensues and Mary is quickly reduced to the role of a subservient housewife. This kind of thing was an issue in a lot of science fiction in this period, but that does not make it any less infuriating to read.
As a piece of science fiction history, The Puppet Masters is close to being a must-read. At the same time, however, it stands on its own merits as a novel. Give it a shot; you won’t regret it.