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Literature / The Puppet Masters

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The Puppet Masters is a novel by Robert A. Heinlein about an Alien Invasion, first published in 1951. This was the only novel Heinlein published on the subject and he cemented most of the tropes usually associated with invasion stories.

Secret agents Sam, Mary and "The Old Man" fight a fantastical battle against parasitic aliens who are bent on assimilating all of humanity and taking control of Earth. Danger is everywhere when anyone around you could be a host.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Action Girlfriend: Mary. To be precise, she's a Gunwoman.
  • And I'm the Queen of Sheba: The Old Man captures one of the slugs and orders an analysis be performed on it.
    Dr. Graves: If that is alive, I'm Queen Anne.
    Old Man: Maybe you are, but don't take chances. It's a parasite, capable of attaching itself to a host, such as a man, and controlling the host. It is almost certainly extraterrestrial in origin and metabolism.
  • Alien Abduction: The aliens have been abducting humans for years, possibly centuries, as part of the plan to conquer Earth. It turns out that the protagonist's Love Interest was abducted from a human colony on Venus as a child; this provides a key to the eventual defeat of the invasion.
  • Aliens Are Bastards: The aliens claim they are freeing humans from The Evils of Free Will, but it's obvious from the way they treat their slaves that they're simply expendable Meat Puppets to them.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: The invasion begins in Grinnell, Iowa.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Notably mocks this;
    The Old Mans unique gift was the ability to reason logically with unfamiliar, hard-to-believe facts as easily as with the commonplace. Not much, eh? Most minds stall dead when faced with facts which conflict with basic beliefs; I-just-cant-believe-it is all one word to highbrows and dimwits alike.
  • Author Appeal: Sam is a cat lover and has a thing for redheads, much like Heinlein himself. Then there's humanity's first response to the alien invasion being to institute mandatory nudity...
  • Beastly Bloodsports: The Puppeteer Parasite aliens decide they quite like this aspect of human culture, and decide to liven things up by giving the bull an even chance by having one of them take over the bull so it's as smart as the matador.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: The aliens claim to be bringing inner peace to humanity.
  • Bizarre Alien Reproduction: Each "slug" can consume the bodily resources of their hosts to fission into two daughter parasites at will.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Sam's father is actually nicknamed 'the Old Man', which may be an allusion to the Old Man of the Mountain. They live on not exactly friendly terms.
  • Chickification: Mary is a secret agent who carries an excessive amount of firepower and is certainly willing to use it. After marrying Sam halfway through the book, she becomes an instant "Yes dear" housewife, though it's unclear whether this is Values Dissonance on Heinlein's part or if he's just playing the situation for its humorous aspects.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: After Mary's "clueless chick" act fails to work on the men at the fake saucer site, she states that they can't be "normal male men".
  • Dirty Communists: A Heinlein favorite and in this case, an Incredibly Lame Pun. The slugs themselves are literally filthy, as they never make their hosts bathe. The slugs invaded Russia just three months before the US, and just before the climax, Asia is depopulated by a revival of the Black Death. And the entire novel takes place during the shirtsleeve months of a single year.
  • Dystopia Is Hard: It's repeatedly stated that the slugs, despite their utopian claims, make horrible masters; they over-exert their hosts, starve them, and are ignorant of basic hygiene. When Sam is freed, he spends the first week in ultra-tech intensive care due to over-exhaustion, malnutrition (he has fucking scurvy) infestation with scabies and lice, and it's implied doctors had to perform extensive surgery on his feet because he ran out the door in undersized shoes and the slug never changed them. Also see Dirty Communists, a Heinlein staple.
    Fundamentally the slugs must be too stupid to keep slaves; perhaps that was why they moved from planet to planet — they spoiled what they touched. After a while their hosts would die out and then they needed new hosts.
  • Eagleland: Mixed Flavor. On one hand, the US is implied to be the most technologically and socially advanced nation on Earth. On the other, elected officials are so stupid that they almost lose the war before it starts; a near-miss is enough for the President to join the cause, but the rest of Congress only joins in after Sam, Mary and the Old Man interrupt a session with guns and strip everyone naked to reveal that over a dozen Congressmen have slugs on their backs. One such was in the process of impeaching the President.
  • Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion: The solution is reached by logical reasoning rather than detailed research or military strategy, and turns out to be relatively simple. However, it still took months of active resistance and countless lives were lost in the process - a lesson that humanity takes careful note of.
    If the slugs taught us anything, it was that the price of freedom is the willingness to do sudden battle, anywhere, any time, and with utter recklessness. If we did not learn that, well — "Dinosaurs, move over! We are ready to become extinct."
  • Embarrassing First Name
    • Sam goes through several false identities. Only late in the novel does he go right up to his father and ask, "Dad, why did you name me Elihu?"
    • Mary's birth name, Allucquere, is intriguing, but she still finds it embarrassing, as it's indicative of her being raised in a benign yet ostracized cult. More specifically, it's a reminder of how she's the Last of Her Kind, as the slugs killed the rest of their colony on Venus.
  • Energy Weapon: Oddly enough, humans use these, despite still using slide-rules. Sam usually calls them "heaters", and the injuries they inflict are always referred to as "burns" - as in "burn a hole clean through", or "burn off a limb."
  • Enslaved Tongue: The title aliens can control a human's body by touching him and make him say anything they want. One politician is taken over and forced to say things he doesn't mean, and suffers great anguish over it.
  • Exploited Immunity: A downplayed version. Humans aren't immune to Venusian Nine-Day Fever. In fact, as the name suggests, it will kill a human in seven to ten days if untreated. But it will kill a puppet master in five days, leaving a window for the liberated humans to be treated.
  • Extended Disarming
    The Secret Service guards gave us the works. An X-Ray went beep! and I surrendered my heater. Mary turned out to be a walking arsenal; the machine gave four beeps and a hicough, though you would have sworn she couldn't hide a tax receipt.
    • During a later strip-search he mentions that Mary "added considerably to the pile of hardware. I decided she just plain liked guns."
  • Even the Girls Want Her: Discussed and averted. The Old Man wants to put Mary on the President's security detail, to detect any men also on the President's staff who don't react to her "properly" and thus may be possessed. Mary points out that she is not confident in her ability to detect a possessed female using this method, so The Old Man suggests removing any female staff.
  • Evil Evolves: The aliens are very good at this. Since they gain access to their victims' thoughts and memories, they quickly learn about the humans' plans and adaptations, and quickly counter-adapt. When humans start baring their backs to keep the aliens from hiding, the aliens learn to attach to other parts of their anatomy; when humans learn to crush the aliens, the aliens develop hard carapaces to protect themselves. The story becomes a race between adaptation and extinction.
  • Flawless Token: Mary is the single most effective individual in the book; the bravest, the most lethal, the keenest mind, the first to detect the slugs, and she even provides the ultimate means of defeating the invasion. In summary;
    The Old Man: Listen, son. Most women are damn fools and children. But they've got more range than we've got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better — and the vile ones are viler, for that matter.
  • Flying Car: Present in the novel and used fairly extensively. At one point, Sam is sent to do some recon in parasite territory, he flies in, then decides to try and be stealthy and drive overland the rest of the way. He realizes his problem on this time-sensitive mission when his one hour flight to Kansas City will take three hours overland, commenting that if he decided to stop the car a mile out and walk the rest of the way, he'd still be three hours away! A mention of "triphibs" implies some of these vehicles can also function on or under the water as well as in the air and on the land.
  • Flying Saucer: The first report of the invasion is of a "flying saucer" landing in Iowa, the alien ships are described as having a pretty classic saucer shape (a round disc with a metal hemisphere on top that serves as the entrance), and the narrator frequently refers to them simply as "saucers".
  • Foregone Conclusion: When Sam's cat is introduced, the reader already knows it will meet a bad end, as Sam states in the beginning of the book that he wants revenge on the aliens regarding a specific cat.
  • Free-Love Future: A downplayed version where couples can sign marriage contracts for set periods ranging from "under six months" to "Lifetime" (which the protagonists choose). Given that, at the time Heinlein wrote the novel, couples were expected to get married before having sex, this is clearly meant to imply this trope.
  • Future Society, Present Values:
    • The novel was published in 1951 and set in 2007. Although the heroine is just as tough and capable as the male lead (sometimes more so), the moment gender roles or romantic relationships come up she turns, hilariously, into June Cleaver. Aaand then switches back if threatened or dismissed.
    • People complained about having to walk around bare to the waist (or in bikini tops for women) far more in the book than they probably would have in real life 2007. Though this is explicitly mentioned to be the case in America. The narrator does mention cases where the opposite is true, like in Iceland, where a man who won't strip naked and get in the hot tub with his friends would be instantly regarded with suspicion.
  • Government Conspiracy: Because of The Infiltration.
  • Happiness in Slavery: The aliens claim that they will give their hosts a kind of mental peace when they are controlled by the aliens, making them happier than humans in a state of freedom. This is actually to a fair description of the protagonist Sam's state of mind during the time he is controlled. However, once Sam is freed he not only refuses to consider infestation would be good for him or anyone else, but his hated of the slugs reaches genocidal proportions; he participates in Schedule Mercy (parachuting into occupied territory to cure the hosts of "nine-day fever" once their slugs are dead) simply to have the pleasure of watching the slugs die, die, DIE. This gets him caught and nearly possessed again.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Sam and Mary, though it's not clear whether the red color of Mary's hair is natural or not.
  • If You Won't, I Will: Sam is asked to allow one of the title monsters to take control of him, so as to interrogate it. He refuses, and discovers that his Love Interest Mary has volunteered to do it and will be going in his place. He reverses himself and agrees to take part. He actually gets really pissed off about this; though he was aware since their first meeting that Mary was a Femme Fatale, he was smitten from the get-go anyway. Thus, Mary using her wiles on him - a fellow agent - was an unforgivable betrayal, especially as he was completely aware of all of this yet unable to resist. This accusation turns her into a nervous wreck. Realizing he's effectively lost two agents to the experiment leads the Old Man to tell all; he had decided that since everyone else they've ever pulled a slug off of has died within days, Sam was the only viable candidate - he was the one who set up the above manipulation and Mary was an honest volunteer.
  • It's Personal: Things really get personal for Sam when his beloved cat Pirate dies after being infected. He mentions his need for revenge in the closing of the book.
  • "Join Us" Drone: One of the aliens is allowed to possess a human being, a secret agent fighting them. While under control, the agent tries to convince his boss to let one of the aliens control him.
  • Mental Fusion: The aliens.
  • Military Mashup Machine: One flying saucer landing is spotted and attacked by a submersible cruiser deploying amphibious tanks.
  • Misanthrope Supreme: There are some human beings who do not have masters riding them, who are so vile that they serve as Fifth Columnists to the masters.
  • Naked People Are Funny: In the United States it is very hard to enforce perpetual nudism, which happens to be necessary for safety reasons.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Averted. It took decades for the slugs to adapt from their previous hosts to using humans, hence the repeated abductions that predated the actual invasion. The Old Man points out that numerous slugs on a crashed saucer are harmless to humans, as they're not adapted to ride an oxygen-breather.
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: The slugs, as for most of the invasion they have no understanding of sex. Mary, as a top-shelf Femme Fatale, is as aware of sexual arousal in men as most are to light, and thus uses this to detect men who've been possessed. Asexuals are assumed to be "hag-ridden", though as the President points out at one stage, it could also mean they're "harem guards", e.g. eunuchs or homosexuals. This advantage eventually disappears when the slugs discover sex — and begin engaging in grotesque, murderous orgies.
  • Not My Driver: The Old Man reclaims Sam after he's been possessed by a slug by hijacking him in a vehicle.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: One character posits that this will change the face of humanity forever: that they can never be entirely certain they've eradicated the entire alien menace, and thus that public nudity will just become an ordinary part of human culture moving forward.
  • Nudity Equals Honesty: The slugs can possess anyone by attaching to any part of the body, making nudity necessary to prevent parasites from hiding under any clothing.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: President Personable type. He's a classic Hollywood leader.
  • The Plague: How the aliens are ultimately defeated; a otherwise fatal Venusian disease known as "nine-day fever" (as in it takes seven to ten days to kill a human stone dead) only takes five days to kill a slug. Thus, the invasion is repulsed by releasing possessed animals into Zone Red, waiting for the slugs to die, then parachuting millions of men into the area to administer the cure.
  • Puppeteer Parasite: This is pretty much the main theme of the book. It's worth noting that this book was the former Trope Namer.
  • Re-Cut: As with several other Heinlein books, The Puppet Masters was released in an expanded edition by his wife Virginia after his death. Most of the added material is graphic violent/sexual content censored at the time of the original release.
  • The Reveal: We don't find out that the Old Man is Sam's father until about 2/3 of the way through the book.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: The Old Man might have bought the whole "alien invasion hoax" if the slugs hadn't killed several of his agents beforehand.
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens.
  • Science Is Bad: While the scientific method is acceptable — even praiseworthy — when used to combat the Puppet Masters, science-for-science's sake is scorned by the main characters. The feeling is that pure scientists don't actually produce anything useful, unlike engineers.
  • Shoot the Dog: Pirate's death.
  • Sink or Swim Mentor: The Old Man for Sam (but only when America needs it).
  • So Proud of You: Sam and the Old Man.
  • Space Elves: The race the aliens apparently exploit on their home planet. Supposedly, they were the original inhabitants of Titan.
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: A map is used to show the extent of parasite infestation in the U.S., with areas controlled by the parasites glowing red, those under human control in green, and contested areas in amber. Several times the red areas of the map are described as expanding, showing a spread of the parasites.
  • Starfish Aliens: Hoo, boy. The "slugs" are basically semi-ambulatory blobs of jelly, and dependent on their hosts for everything; without hosts, they are unable to see, touch, or even think. If they're separated from a host for more than a minute or so, they suffocate.
    Sam: Grayish, faintly translucent, and shot through with darker structure, shapeless — it reminded me of a giant clot of frogs' eggs.
  • Tank Goodness: The "mud turtles."
  • That Was Not a Dream: Sam burns himself and Mary while removing a slug from her, then watches over her unconscious body until morning.
    Mary: Sam! Oh, darling, I've had the most terrible dream.
  • Vigilante Man: Expected once it's discovered the slugs don't need to ride between a host's shoulder blades; a clothed body part becomes akin to a hand grenade with the pin pulled. It started when a secretly-possessed cop attacked an armed freeman - bystanders sided with the cop, freeman pulled a gun and died shooting, said shooting revealed the cop wore a slug in his pants, bystanders lynched the cop. It began a public institution after a hoaxed air-raid - where possessed used the shelters to perform mass possessions, moving through the dark slapping slugs between shoulders. All the air wardens were above ground at the time, and they pretty much went ballistic afterwards; anyone can and is expected to attempt to kill anyone wearing anything that could conceal a slug. One particularly vigilant vigilante noticed a woman who never moved her hand from her purse even to make change, so he shot off her hand at the wrist. Then opened the purse and shot the slug in it.
    ...a stark naked, armed man on the street was as likely to be wearing a warden's armband as the "VIG" brassard. Either way, you could count on him shooting at any unexplained excrescence on a human body-shoot and investigate afterward.
  • We Come in Peace Shoot to Kill: The aliens. Again, this may be a political allusion.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Very strongly implied between Sam and the Old Man.
  • We Will All Fly in the Future: As noted, many cars in the setting are flying cars—or "duos", capable of being "roaded" after flight—rather than mere "groundcars" (although those do still also exist). Cities have "launching platforms" and "landing platforms" as a matter of course. In rural areas there are "farmers' copters and suchlike local craft".
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Tempus, a drug Sam and other agents use to give them superior speed and reflexes in dangerous situations by slowing down their perception of time. Also used recreationally to make the most of rare leave time (24 hours becomes a full week).
  • Zeerust: The book features Flying Cars, Magic Plastic Surgery, and phones that are implanted in an agent's skull. And yet, when Sam wants to research old newspaper articles, he heads down to the local library and gets some microfiche spools to peruse.