The Puppet Masters

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The Puppet Masters is a 1951 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein in which American secret agents battle parasitic invaders from outer space. The novel was originally serialised in Galaxy Science Fiction (September, October, November 1951).

Thematically, the book evokes a sense of paranoia later captured in the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which had a similar premise. Heinlein's novel also repeatedly makes explicit the analogy between the mind-controlling parasites and the Communist Russians, echoing the emerging Red Scare in the U.S.


Plot introduction

This novel is Heinlein's only foray into the "alien invasion" genre within science fiction. His approach to the story is different from most preceding invasion stories. It does not present the "helpless humanity" angle typical of stories from The War of the Worlds onwards, nor does it simply dress up conventional horror themes in the trappings of science fiction. While the invaders are horrifying enough, the focus of the plot is very much the practical business of, on the one hand, the aliens mounting the invasion, and on the other, the efforts of free humans to defeat it.

The setting is the early 21st century (the first scene is in 2007). There had been a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West which left both sides battered but unbroken, and following the hot war they just went back to the Cold War. The Soviet Union and China remain a single bloc dominated by Moscow, and the sharp Sino-Soviet breach of the late 1950s had not happened. (A casual reference to Kurdish as one of the languages which an agent "behind the curtain" finds useful indicates that the Soviets have at some time taken over some Kurdish-speaking areas [1]).

Social customs have changed somewhat, in a way typical for Heinlein's fiction (i.e. having become more liberal, such as marriage contracts being possible with fixed terms etc.) and rayguns and personal flying cars are commonplace. Space stations exist and colonies have been established on the planet Venus.

Space technology is far more advanced than in the actual first decade of the 21st century. For example, in the last scene, a space warship is sent on a twelve-year trip to Titan, with not only life-support for a large crew but also enough armaments - presumably nuclear - to all by itself confront an entire world. However, communications satellites have not been thought of, and TV broadcasts are still limited to line-of-sight, as they were at the time of writing.

This has a crucial importance for the plot. A big country like the United States is divided into numerous "blocks" which receive TV broadcasts from their neighbors and relay them onwards. When the invaders seize one of these "blocks", they effectively control all communications within it and can isolate its inhabitants from the outside world, deny the central government any access to them and consolidate control at their leisure.

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