The Puppet Masters (1951)

A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing 79 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 79.

I’m going to start this final column by cannibalizing some old writing. Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters was actually the first book I read for this project, back when I was just writing in my free time—which I apparently used to have—on a now-defunct personal blog. Once I brought it over to The A.V. Club, I decided to save it and reread it as the last book as well. So let’s go back to reread what I wrote in June 2006, when I first acquired the box of paperbacks:

[The Puppet Masters] was published in 1951. Boy was it. Later to defend McCarthy, Heinlein uses the book as a not-too-thinly veiled metaphor for the eternal vigilance needed to keep the Communist menace in check. The slugs come in and corrupt good Americans in the name of a greater hive mind. And they don’t bathe. It’s set in a future after a limited nuclear war that’s barely cramped anyone’s style. And there are flying cars.

What can save America? Nudity. Yes, seriously, nudity. To keep the slug-possessed (or, in Heinlein’s wonderful term, the “hagridden”) straight from the normal folks, the American government orders “Schedule Bare Back,” which requires everyone to walk around stripped to the waist. When the slugs get wise and find other parts of the anatomy to call home, it’s supplanted by “Schedule Sun Tan.” That Heinlein had spent some time as a nudist should come as no surprise. The emphasis here is less on sex than the normalcy of being nude.

Not that sex doesn’t enter into it. The other conquest going on throughout the novel is the hero’s transformation of a willful fellow agent into a submissive bride capable of saying little more than “Yes, dear.” This is treated as a triumph parallel to defeating the slugs, and only a little less difficult. Did I mention it was published in 1951? I guess there was some anxiety about all those newly minted independent women from the Rosie the Riveter era.

I can’t say my feelings about the book itself have changed that much. But there’s a glibness to that description that I wouldn’t use today. I’m not sure I felt all that great about using it then, either. Here’s the final paragraph:

I don’t want to be glib about The Puppet Masters or Heinlein. The ideas here are strong and certainly influential. I don’t know if it has any aliens-possessing-humans predecessors, but it’s hard to imagine Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or Star Trek’s Borg without it. It’s also quite compellingly written, mixing tough guy prose with breathless pacing and vivid description. And as for the dated stuff, that’s half the reason I’m excited about the project. Weird sex, despicable politics, and slugs: And that’s just book one. This should be fun.

All true, and yet I think the longer I spent with the box of paperbacks, the less superficial my relationship with these books got. Heinlein is easy to mock. Seriously, this is a piece of anti-communist, pro-nudism science fiction in which the main character narrates as if in the grips of a perpetual hard-on. But The Puppet Masters is also completely gripping, compellingly written, and filed with big, crazy ideas that would influence many other writers, if only because they wanted to rebel against them.

As a sidebar to this project, I decided to also read Stranger In A Strange Land, another huge oversight in my science-fiction reading. I kind of hated it, but I’m glad I read it. I know it’s beloved by many—the cover alone told me it was “the most famous science fiction novel ever written”—but the whole thing felt like one long Mary Sue-like screed about the way things ought to be if everyone would just loosen up a little, man. Actually, I shouldn’t attach that hippie-speak “man” to the end. As much as the ’60s counterculture latched onto it, the tone of the book feels slightly behind the times, like the work of a swinger in a crew cut. Yet as with The Puppet Masters, I started to see its influence everywhere. Walter Tevis’ fantastic novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, for one, started to seem like an answer to Heinlein—though they were published too closely together for that likely to be true. And the book got in my head. In fact, if anything, I think this project has allowed me to grok whole strands of pop culture much better. I didn’t really enjoy reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, but 20th-century pulp and science fiction—to say nothing of the movies and television influenced by them—wouldn’t be the same without him.

And, as for my prediction that it would be fun: It has been. Some of the books were a complete slog. Some I would have abandoned on page 20 if I hadn’t committed to reading them. Some were largely terrible, but also fascinating. I’ll never forget Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo, for starters. I’d have a hard time calling it a good book, but as a dystopian fever dream, I’ve never read anything like it. (Incidentally, it’s recently been reissued in a handsome new edition. I’m glad to have that kind of madness remain in print.) I was happy to discover Philip Jose Farmer, whom I’ve filed under subject-for-further-study, and to be made aware of eccentric Vardis Fisher, who decided to write a history of humanity from the perspective of a Mormon-turned-atheist writing from deep in Idaho. Finally, I’m happiest to have read Earth Abides, a lyrical post-apocalyptic masterpiece by George R. Stewart. I knew nothing of it when I opened the cover, and I left it breathless and moved by its vision of humanity persisting as civilization fades.

Now I’m done. And, honestly, I’m a bit happy to be done. I read a lot by nature, and this obligation has made me shelve a lot of books I’d like to have read during the last four years. I now feel like I have a towering backlog of recent novels, and I need to play catch-up. I’m looking at you, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. And, hey, that’s a book deeply influenced by what I’ve just been reading, isn’t it? It’s inescapable, this paperback world. Which is why I don’t want to close the box forever. I suspect I’ll be scouring used bookstores for intriguing-looking old genre paperbacks for, well, forever. And I’ll probably be writing about them here in some occasional form of this column. But for now at least, let’s put them aside. If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that books are patient and eternal. They’ll wait for you to find them, and even the most unpromising have something to say.

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