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A cross between a James Bond adventure and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel The Puppet Masters is a fast-paced alien invasion thriller that combines secret agent intrigue and sexual politics with a healthy dose of flying saucer paranoia. While the book lacks some of the gravitas and narrative punch of his later works (this being one of his earliest novels), it more than makes up for it with a tightly-plotted, suspense-filled story populated by slimy monsters, daring secret agents, and beautiful women. And although Heinlein makes occasional allusions to the similarities between the mind-controlling aliens and the practices of Communist Russia (the Cold War being at its height at the time the book was written), I think that this book is best enjoyed as a Sci-Fi spy thriller rather than any sort of political allegory.
The Puppet Masters Summary: Our James Bond stand-in is a man named Sam, an expertly trained agent who works for a top secret government intelligence agency under the direction of his boss, a man simply known as “the Old Man.” There is no mention of the name of the organization and, it is explained, the only person who is aware of its existence is the President. The novel starts out with Sam and the Old Man (along with a gorgeous agent named “Mary”) as they investigate a flyer saucer appearance in Iowa. During their investigation they discover that local residents are becoming mentally enslaved by slug-like creatures that are attaching themselves to the back of their host’s neck (presumably their brain-stem). After capturing one of the slugs, the team tries to convince the President of the seriousness of the threat but is unable to persuade him to take the slug menace seriously.
After returning to Iowa to continue the investigation, one of the members of their team secretly becomes controlled by one of the slugs and inadvertently brings it back to their Washington, D.C. headquarters with him. In a funny bit of sexual serendipity, the slug is only discovered when Mary walks past the controlled agent and doesn’t get the same lascivious look that she usually gets from men reacting to her beauty, leading her to believe (however conceitedly) that he is not in full control of his faculties. Although her intuition turns out to be right and the agent is subdued, the slug is able to escape from its host and eventually attach itself to our protagonist Sam. Under the control of the slug, Sam escapes their headquarters. At around the same time, we learn that the invasion has been spreading, with slugs multiplying and even sending themselves through the mail in order to infect more people. By the time Sam is recaptured and rid of the slug, the slugs have been able to take over control of people in high levels of government and are poised to make a play on the President.
The Puppet Masters Review: I won’t spoil the fun for you by telling you how they get out of their predicament (or even if they do), but I will tell you that the final act features some pretty cool reveals and enough action and suspense to fill a Hollywood blockbuster – which is probably why they’ve made a few of them out of the novel’s basic premise. So, if you’re in the mood for an exciting and original take on the alien invasion story, Heinlein’s Puppet Masters is a great read. Even if it doesn’t match the brilliance of his more celebrated works, it nevertheless stands on its own as a uniquely compelling piece of pulp entertainment.