The Puppet Masters
By Robert A. Heinlein
Blackstone Audio Books, Inc.
Read by Lloyd James
Robert Heinlein is widely acknowledged as one of the great masters of Science Fiction and while I would never argue against that, I must admit that I have always blown hot and cold on his stories. Some, I love and others, not so much. I have never liked Lazarus Long as a character, for example. I disagree with him on all too many points of personal philosophy. I find him an egotistical, stuck-up S.O.B. who only turns out to be correct in his pontifications because that’s the way the stories were written. That’s hardly unique, of course. Very few authors are going to feature a character who would probably be dead the first time he made a mistake.
The good news is that The Puppet Masters does not feature Lazarus Long. The bad news is it might as well. “The Old Man,” aka Andrew Nivens, aka the chief of the agency is too similar to Long for my comfort. Smart, stubborn and thinks he knows it all – the one saving grace for his character is that, in his arrogance, he does make mistakes and once or twice even admits it. In short the Old Man is a classic example of a Heinlein character. His son, Sam, aka Elihu Nivens, is the first person voice of the story and is the flip side of the Old Man’s coin. Where the Old Man is entirely certain of himself even in the case of conflicting evidence, Sam vacillates between self-confidence and its opposite number frequently when the evidence suggests he should be otherwise.
The Puppet Masters was Heinlein’s one foray into the Alien Invasion subgenre of Science Fiction and the invaders are quite unusual – parasites that attach themselves to a host and control them suing the hosts’ thoughts and abilities. There are some technical difficulties that make them implausible at times, such as how they could have adapted themselves to various intelligent species as they moved from world to world but I was able to pass that off, mostly because I just plain did not like The Old Man.
There is no real character development as one might find in mainstream fiction, but that is not necessarily a liability in SF. The three main characters – The Old Man, Sam and Mary – are gradually revealed to the reader. That’s typical in SF and fantasy; characters are developed but they do not necessarily change over the course of a book. Even so, one could argue that Sam does change due to his contact, although I wonder if he changed as much as he should have given the experience.
Well, I can put up with Heinlein’s characters most of the time. In other stories they don’t bother me at all, but somehow this time I kept wrinkling my nose at them. They just seemed too much like caricatures. But more than that, I found the characters’ attitudes just too darned stuck in the 50’s. The Old Man is the always-right (even when he is wrong) father figure. Sam is the dutiful son even when Dad doesn’t treat him well and Mary? Mary seems to start out as a strong female character who turns out to have incredible vulnerabilities and once married to Sam she defers to him on almost every point. All three are typical Heinlein characters.
The aliens, on the other hand, are unique or at least they were at the time Heinlein wrote the story. They are slug-like creatures who attach themselves directly to the nervous system of a host whether human or animal and controls him, her or it in the manner of the creature they have taken to riding. They can move quickly and easily from one host to another and there is, at first, no defense against them. Not only that, but they are fiendishly clever and their invasion is so quiet and sub rosa that The Old Man and his agents have trouble convincing anyone the aliens exist or are as dangerous as they are.
So… should you read this book? Sure, yes. It may not be Heinlein’s best but it is an amazingly creative work that so many authors have borrowed from over the years.
The Audio Book:
I was so tempted to say this was a lackluster performance, but that would not have been fair to Mister James and truly would have been due to my own feelings about the story itself.
Lloyd James delivers an acceptable performance with good pacing and good if, sometimes subtle, differentiation between the characters. While I have heard him do better, his performance here is even and quite listenable with none of the “silly voices” some readers resort to. There is genuine emotion in his performance even at times when the speaker is unbelievably stoic or even just flat. I’ve been forced to listen to a lot worse, not many that were as good or better.
All in all, it’s a classic; worth reading or listening to once.