Tuesday, June 27, 2006


My journey into the big box of , mostly science fiction paperbacks obtained at Half Price Books for $35 begins with Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, in which a handful of intrepid government agents fight off an invasion of alien slugs capable of taking over humans' bodies and bending it to their global dominating will. I chose it mostly because I'd never ready any Heinlein, believe it or not, and, hey, brain-sucking slugs: What could be better?

The book 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 waste. 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 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, although book two will have to wait until after I finish Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation and, in all likelihood, something to review for The A.V. Club.

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