Saturday, February 18, 2012

Robert Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" (novel, alien invasion): Parasitic aliens are taking over humanity

Cover image of the novel The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein. Image shows a man literally attached to strings, as if he is a puppet.
I wonder if the story is primarily a criticism of the Soviet communism. Author makes several uncharitable remarks on the subject, which make me suspect.

It's very readable, though. Action packed, hard to put down.

Note that there are at least 3 versions of this story:
  1. Original (long version) that was printed for the first time in early 1990s. This post is based on this version.
  2. A shortened novel version that was published sometime in 1950s.
  3. A serialized version of this shortened version, that appeared in Galaxy after extensive editing by its editor, H L Gold.

Story summary.

Think brainwashing parasites. If you are infected, you are aware of your identity, but your body does parasite's bidding.

Parasites are intelligent alien invaders from Titan, with amoeba-like flexible body. Their preferred method of infecting a human host is by extending a tendril to any part of victim's body to paralyze the host; eventually attaching themselves to the upper half of the spinal cord of victim in the form of a shaft a couple of inches thick & half the spine long (& hidden underneath the shirt). They can multiply very fast where there is opportunity. They prefer infecting humans, because that's the path to ruling earth. But when needed, they can infect all sorts of animals too.

At a place in the story, it is surmised that they probably are a single huge organism with common memory. And the individual parasites have some sort of urge to sync their memories often - by physically attaching to each other. How they evolved like this is not explained; I would think the tendency to spread an infection through most population quickly by frequent physical contact would have rooted it out by evolution long ago. In fact, that's the way they're eventually defeated; an engineered virus artificially introduced into infected human population that kills parasites far faster then their hosts - so hosts can get treatment.

Story is of a small team of a super-secret US government agency discovering the infection & helping fight it.

Fact sheet.

First published: Galaxy, September/October/November 1951.
Rating: A.
Related: Stories of Robert Heinlein.


Matt H said...

The Earth specific invasion may have originated on Titan, but the implication is that the slugs may have originated outside of the Solar System. And Titan was simply another conquest and jumping off point for the conquest of Earth.

The slugs also appear to be quite the genetic engineers. They engineer themselves in order to adapt to the target planet (in this case Earth). Slugs adapted for the conditions on Titan would not be able to survive on Earth without artificial support. And it is certainly conceivable that the artificial evolution that they used to adapt themselves to different planets/moons/ecologies they may have overlooked some vulnerabilities and relied too much on their hosts' immune systems.

Tinkoo said...

Yes for their origin.

I personally don't recall their genetic engg part, though I wondered how they could live on earth unprotected. I might have been half asleep when reading over this part - I read large part of this story late night.

About evolution never having to worry about their infection spreading vulnerability. I'm not sure. Infection is not such an uncommon event.

Matt H said...

Heinlein makes a point that the slugs rely on the immune systems of their hosts.

And if they did not, they would risk rejecting the host as parts of the slugs' feeding and nervous system infiltrate through the hosts' skin. The slugs' immune systems (if any) would need to identify and accept the foreign tissue of their hosts immediately for the slugs to successfully feed and control their hosts.

Also, if you look at parasites like tapeworms or flukes you really don't see much, if any immune systems in them. They are adapted to infiltrate an immune system rather than have one of their own.

In addition the disease that killed the slugs is also nearly 100% deadly to humans. It's just that the slugs die earlier, and only by a matter of hours.

Tinkoo said...

OK - they can match the immune system on host, so they're not rejected.

Think about what would have happened to humans if everyone was to kiss everyone in sight at every opportunity?

What the slugs are ensuring is that body fluids of their hosts (ok, indirectly) will now suddenly be exchanged far more often than is the norm for hosts. I'm still puzzled how they survived the evolution.

deDeurs said...

A particular funny aspect of the Puppet Masters idea is that humans are forced to walk around exposed in the nude. As usual Heinlein, with personal interests in nudism, lays it on too thick. After a short period of nation wide blushing, the population relents to Operation Bareback, yeah, sure. 'Fortunately', the invasion happens during the summer months! (and of course only in America) but when fall comes near, everyone starts to get really worried.
Filmed in 1994 with Donald Sutherland, and nine screenwriters were needed. It was decided that Operation Bareback had to be deleted from the script. It would have looked ridiculous, of course. The president of the US in the Oval Room nekkid? No way.
But I prefer a silly Heinlein novel over a rationalized Hollywood movie version.

Matt H said...

Although the novel concentrated on the U.S., other parts of the world were mentioned. Specifically a mission to the Soviet Union were the slugs appeared to have taken over completely. Also, parts of the world where there was casual nudity were mentioned as not being taken over.

The original screenwriter for the movie was a Heinlein fan who tried to incorporate key elements from the novel (Terry Rossio ). He wrote an essay on how the movie and screenplay got so screwed up.

deDeurs said...

--Also, parts of the world where there was casual nudity were mentioned as not being taken over--
Ah yes, I forgot about that. Been a few years since I read it.
...But I'm sure it was an American who saved the world in the end haha!