Caveat

With regards the reviews I write, I feel it is necessary to provide this caveat.
The initial section right up to the button that opens the full synopsis is the teaser where I try to give a look into the book without revealing too much.

The section within the button is a full synopsis. No detail will be hidden at all.

Be warned!
The final section (Food for thought) is a series of thoughts on the book. This is a personal take on the book and does mention important parts of the books. It should be considered as much of a spoiler as the previous section!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book Review: The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall. Today we're going back in time to review a book that is somewhat dated but reflects the period very well, xenophobes and McCarthyists be warned, we're looking at you, in:
The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein:
Cover art copyright of Bob Eggleton

'PUPPETS, MEET YOUR MASTERS

First came the news that a flying saucer had landed in Iowa. Then came the announcement that the whole thing was just 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 in. And four more agents who were sent in 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 sluglike 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 humans 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...' - The Puppet Masters, Robert A. Heinlein [1951]

The Puppet Masters is a book about mankind's struggle against an extraterrestrial invader that can not only hide itself from humankind but also take control of human beings. It is told from the perspective of Sam Cavanaugh, an agent of the Section (a secretive intelligence agency above that of the CIA) and set in a 'future' that holds very few similarities with our present. Sam's world, for example, still features the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) as a world power that hides behind the Iron Curtain (from Churchill's famous speech). He has a mobile phone in the form of a surgically implanted phone in his cranium and drives an aircar (an old term for a flying car). The world itself has recovered from the Third World War which was implied to have been between the USSR and the USA. In this future, mankind has already spread to parts of the solar system and encountered the Venerians (Venus-inhabiting aliens). Despite this though, the tale takes place almost entirely on Earth.

A very enjoyable tale, though as a reader, you can't help but feel a bit of detachment from the book's language and setting. There's alot of slang that frankly isn't used anymore at all which adds to the sense of confusion within the story because it can be hard to tell when something is slang and when it isn't. For example, Heinlein uses the word 'burn' when describing Sam's use of a gun, which at first had me thinking (because this story was in a future setting) that the weapons involved were some sort of laser (or thermal induction weapon for the boffins), however, a single reference to an Owen gun suggests that it is just slang for 'shoot' (an Owen gun is a 1939 era sub-machine gun), which is verified by the use of the word 'heater' to refer to his gun (slang for a handgun).Unfortunately, this can make reading the book something of a struggle. Despite that though, this is still a very entertaining read and a fascinating insight into the conceptual ideas of the 'future' that were had in the 1950s. However, the book's setting is only glimpsed at through occasional remarks from the characters (acting as if the reader would be already familiar with these events).


Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):



Food for thought:

It is important to remember that this book is a product of the late 1940s, printed in 1951. Much of its content derives from events surrounding this period and the book itself is a reflection of the taste of the period. The concept of UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) and their classical 'saucer' shape is a dated one. Today, the flying saucer is usually seen as a sign of parody rather than a 'serious' take on science fiction. However, during the late 1940s, UFOs were a new, exciting and popular topic. From the crash of an Air Force surveillance balloon in 1947 at Roswell, New Mexico, to the 1948 hoax at Aztec, New Mexico and from stories of 'foo fighters' by pilots who served in the Second World War, the American populace was hyped, primed and entranced at the ideas of visitors from outer space. The Puppet Masters is simply a play on those fears and wild speculations by presenting a tale that not only has a genuine UFO crash but also a sinister reason for the 'coverups' that occur shortly afterwards.

The 'enemy' is a mix of the two enemy ideologies that the American populace of the time could easily identify with (though leaning heavily left). The first being the spectre of fascism, that enemy only officially overthrown in 1945, six years before. The jackboot marching and blind obedience that the concept of fascism invokes (or ultra nationalism as it is known today) is conjured in the effortless control that the Titans (the aliens) have over their victims while the sense of secrecy and the fact that the Titans are, in fact, one connected organism creates the spectre of Communism, a unified society that seeks the improvement of the human race and the ushering in of an 'utopia', although it is an utopia that benefits the Titans first and foremost.

In some senses, this book is a play on the differences between autocracies and democracies. It makes a play on the power that control of information can have, something that was quite well known at the time. Our conception of the world around us is entirely derived on what we can find out about it. This is the story of democratic society defeating autocratic, of people who question defeating a people who don't (or in this case, can't).

On the topic of the power of control of information; for example, everyone knows that the Earth orbits the sun. Why? Because we have been informed that this is factually correct. As an individual, I have never been into space (so I've never been able to directly observe the Moon's orbit, which would prove that smaller objects orbit larger ones) and I've never touched a telescope (which would allow me to view the phases of Venus or Jupiter's four biggest moons). Effectively, this means that I have chosen to take the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun on faith, I can't really claim to know 'better' just because my view is shared by the rest of the world. The very nature of the Titans is part of that play on the power of information. Had mankind understood the threat that was arrayed against them when that UFO first landed in Iowa the war would have been a short one. Instead, the Titans manage to extend themselves not by outright dominion but by careful selection, starting with the channels of communication, the broadcast networks, then moving on to local administration, such as the police force and politicians.

The Puppet Masters makes the point throughout the book of the folly of simply accepting what we're told by the media. Heinlein was sounding a warning in 1951 of the dangers inherent in a system that controls information (such as for example... the only other major economic and military competitor after the 2nd World War; the USSR). In today's society, there's a large amount of scepticism and cynicism. We're used to the idea that the media has a slant. However, unless direct evidence reaches us, we're inclined to believe whatever the majority believes (usually the majority belief is factually correct, but not always). Remember the adage: "Knowledge is power." This is the main theme throughout the novel!

There is a subtle take at the reactionary power of a democratic government. When the Section discovers the threat of Titans, the President fails to act immediately on it, choosing to try to pick the most politically advantageous time to reveal this information. An autocratic society would have acted faster and more decisively, but democratic societies are not designed in any way or form to be 'efficient' (in a ruthless sense), they are instead designed to counter the power given to the elected officials. A system of checks and balances exist to ensure that the leader of a democratic society cannot choose to act autocratically.

There's also the whole 'public nudity' take. Schedule Bareback and Sun Tan are not very shocking in today's society. Sure, most people aren't comfortable with dropping their trousers in the middle of a street, but intellectually, we know about nudist colonies and beaches, we know that there are some people who do actually do that. It's not such a great shock. However, in the 1950s, Schedule Bareback and Schedule Sun Tan would have come across as big shocks. Naturally, there is a small point made about what we are willing to sacrifice for the promise of greater security. Initially, Sam notes that quite a few places in Zone Green expressed confusion and uncertainty about the need for Schedule Bareback, but as the Titans go from being an incorporeal fear to an actual, living, breathing fear (sometime after the air-raid shelter incidents) then the majority of resistance to Schedule Sun Tan disappears. It is a fact in life that citizens will happily give up their rights if they are convinced that the security offered will counter their fears.

All in all, the Puppet Masters is a great tale. An enjoyable story despite its quirks, though there are a few. Many of these quirks are just a reflection of the times in which the book was written. There's a very clear anti-Soviet tone throughout the book, but this should not be so surprising. America was under threat by the growing strength of Communism (and in the 1950s it certainly was growing). From the American perspective, alot of the world was arrayed against them by the late 1940s. Russia had spread Communism to Eastern Europe while Western Europe was struggling to rebuild. In 1949, Chiang Kai Shek's fascist government (supported by American equipment and funds) was forced to flee to Taiwan by the Chinese Communist Party, never to return and in 1950, the wealthy, industrialised and Communist North Korea declared war on the poorer, more agriculturally based South (with huge initial successes). At the time of the publication of The Puppet Masters, Communism was in the ascendancy. In addition to these external political factors, internally, America was still gripped by Senator McCarthy's 'Red Scare.' As such, the Titans in the book are a clear 'enemy' that any American reader of the time could immediately identify with and reject as evil.

There's nothing wrong with this. British novels (for example) tend to use the Nazis for inspiration when it comes to finding some big, evil entity for a novel (look at Harry Potter and Voldemort's SS Death's Heads sorry, Death Eaters, complete with skull motif, black robes and questionable ethics regarding the purity of the master wizard race). What is wrong is the idea that the world is so black and white. There's them and us. There's the USSR in the book that dropped atom bombs on America, and US (the United States). There's the United Nations not really doing much to help and US. Black and White or Blue and Red, your choice. That in itself I felt was a disappointing aspect of the book, the fact that the villains lacked any real complexity. There wasn't even a suggestion of survival there, the only interview with the Titans had boiled down to 'we do it because we like it.' If the Titans really do steal culture as much as they steal bodies, why then did the Titans fail to develop anything mentally more challenging than spreading themselves? Culture is more than just a single boxing match. Yes, Sam questions on numerous occasions whether the Titans were actually sentient or just had an animal level of instincts, but when he himself is possessed by them we can see that the Titans are using his intellect and training to their benefit. Human beings are complex creatures, and Sam himself is able to develop complex plans to benefit his master. It is almost disappointing that the Titans never then develop a successful or complex strategy against Zone Green beyond endless attempts to infiltrate the zone.

The other quirk is the language. It is an understandable issues, but is still jars from time to time. Slang is a good way to reach your contemporary audience, as they will understand the terms you use and identify (empathise) better because they themselves use those very terms. However, once the language changes (and language always does evolve), it remains within the text awkwardly, no longer able to create a common bond of empathy and instead invokes confusion. As mentioned at the top, I spent the initial chapters assuming that Sam was armed with a laser on the assumption that 'heater' and 'burn' were words that would apply to a weapon of that sort. However, the Internet has kindly informed me that burn and heater are slang for shooting and pistols respectively.

One last quirk is Mary. Mary is portrayed initially as a strong, fierce woman. Note I didn't say she was independent. Yes, modern feminism and concepts of gender equality were still being developed in the 1950s, but nonetheless Mary comes across as an innately depressing character. Here is the female lead to Sam's male lead. She's tough, a competent agent, but cannot for the life of her think for herself. With only one or two exceptions she ends up just being an echoing device for Sam's wishes and desires, most notably around their marriage.

That one final issue I had was the ending. Robert A. Heinlein pulls a 'Deus Ex Machina' in the form of a very convenient biological solution to the Titans. It's not a big deal, since Heinlein usually writes quite optimistic tales (even a book with a premise such as The Puppet Masters ended on a cheerful note). Earth was in the clear, though the planet must remain vigilant as mankind takes to the stars to exact some rather old fashioned revenge. However, despite all that, I reiterate that I enjoyed the story. It's a nice insight into the thinking of the 1950s, the language is hard to understand at times when the slang appears but it doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the story.