Friday, 21 August 2015

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

Huh. I was just sitting down to write this review, having finished the book a week or so ago, but before I did, I read some more stuff on the continuing Sad Puppies saga, and found a name popping up of a woman who also wrote the afterword to this edition. Doesn't surprise me, because while I enjoyed the book for the most part, reading the afterword made me think "wow, this woman and I would not agree on anything" and back away slowly.

Will that affect the review I'm about to write? Let's see. Because, honestly, I probably am one of the people the Puppies would hate, and when books bother me, on a personal and political level, with how they handle, in this case, gender, I'll talk about it. On the other hand, I'm also not a fan of throwing out an entire era of literature and science fiction because people didn't handle writing women well. It depends on how bad it is, and how good the rest of the book is.

The point, I guess, is that I can identify out how problematic and occasionally upsetting ways women were handled, and still have liked the book overall. And you know what? I did. The treatment of women was more bothersome than it usually is in Heinlein, and I am normally someone who defends him against complaints in the area. (The defense goes something like: yes, his women are all highly sexual and sexualised, but they are also strong, interesting, capable, intelligent and full of character - and in an era of science fiction where the choice is that or housewives who "gurgle happily," I know what I'll pick. I'm also fine with women having strong sex drives, although sometimes it does become much of a muchness.)

Dammit, that isn't where I intended to start. Maybe let's go back to the planned start of the review, and work our way back around to gender. Because, honestly, I intended to start by asking about the movie version. My husband said it was pretty good, but reading this book, the question that came to mind was...did it have any nudity? Because nudity is such a huge part of this book, could you make a movie without it?

Look, if people are being controlled by slugs that attach to the spinal column, and you need to see who is and isn't infected...you make everyone strip down, and Heinlein has his government enact that by law. I am fascinated by this, and think it's a really interesting choice, complete with people trying to push back.

The other part of the book that I was really taken by was the device of having the narrator be controlled for a stretch of the book. I thought that was so interesting - the alien takeover from the inside, so to speak. I was a little bit sad when it ended. It's something I've never seen before, and reading it, hearing those differences in the narrative voice from free and controlled were fascinating. It was so cool, I wanted to see more done with it. I suppose it might have gotten wearing over time, but it's a great experiment, and works very well.

So yeah, back to gender, I guess. Mary is the main female character, and she's strong and capable and a better shot than the main character, and possibly also a better secret agent. That's all pretty much de rigueur for a Heinlein female. The part that was sticky for me was that once she was married, she became so damned passive, waiting for her husband to to defend her or stand up for her, becoming suddenly incapable of doing so for herself.

It's a troublesome version of marriage, not least so because it depends on a benevolent husband who is always present and always does the right thing to take care of his wife. Lovely if you can get it (and Mary has it), but subject to the potentials of tons of abuse. (Look, I spend all my time analyzing masculinity in temperance narratives, and it's very similar, except there they emphasize the men whose masculinity is simultaneously degraded and unleashed by drink, causing them to forsake their duties to wives and family. It's the next leap that's important - that maybe what you need is the ability to advocate for your own fucking self.)

That's where the book bothers me, not with all the "ain't Mary a dish" stuff.

Back to smaller questions - were the slugs actually from Titan? The creatures they were riding were, but it seemed like it would have been an even more interesting answer if the slugs had come from even further out, and co-opted an entire planet of Titans before trying to do the same to Earth.

And, of course, it's a huge commentary on Communism, with the characters discovering that the USSR had been infected months before the U.S. - and it made no noticeable difference there, since they had already been enslaved.

As an adventure yarn, it's a fun one. There are a few experiments that I think really pay off. It's not going to go down as one of my favourite Heinleins, though.

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