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The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein

A science fiction novel from 1951 with themes still relevant today.

By J.A. HernandezPublished 25 days ago 8 min read
Top Story - September 2023
Maybe a little fuzzy. But, hey, 1951. Life itself was low-res back then!

At the time of writing this, the year is 2023. Seventy-three years ago, way back in 1951, an author named Robert A. Heinlein released a book titled The Puppet Masters. It's known as a science fiction novel, which is no surprise considering Robert A. Heinlein was a science fiction writer. He was a pioneer in science fiction, specifically hard science fiction.

There are arguments over what precisely makes hard science fiction vs. soft science fiction. Like here on Quora. In an effort to spawn even more arguments on the matter, here's my take on it...

​Hard science fiction: stories with scientific elements where the science is real, could be plausibly real, or at least follows its own rules of a scientific-based system.

Soft science fiction: stories with magic disguised as science.

You may have heard the name Robert A. Heinlein; if not, you might have heard at least the title of another of his works: Stranger in a Strange Land or maybe...Starship Troopers? He wasn't a horror writer, but science fiction and horror crossed paths and blended together for centuries. Science fiction often contains strong horror elements, like in the case of The Puppet Masters.

Science Fiction & Horror Intersect

Mary Shelley invented science fiction.

It's a fact.

If you disagree, then you're wrong. #also-a-fact

Mary Shelley invented the science fiction genre with her 1818 novel titled Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It was a revolutionary novel that blended gothic horror and what we all now know as science fiction.

Fun Fact

​Before Mary Shelley created science fiction, the genre was known as "that thing Mary Shelley is going to invent."

Her groundbreaking novel was written because of a little contest one night between friends about who could write the best horror story. Her friend Lord Byron wrote a fragment of a vampire story. Another friend named John Polidori took that fragment and turned it into the 1819 piece titled The Vampyre—the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre of fantasy fiction. That work from John Polidori eventually spawned everything from Carmilla to Anne Rice novels to lesser-known works featuring vampires that sparkled in the sunlight like they'd rolled out of an after-hours club full of glitter cannons.

It's intriguing to me that a little contest one night between friends was responsible for inventing two genres that have essentially taken over the world. The point of this side quest is that science fiction came about because of horror.

Richard Rothwell's portrait of Shelley was shown at the Royal Academy in 1840, modernized as a meme.

Today, science fiction is full of its own subgenres, many of which blend in horror elements. Horror elements like parasites.

Content warning: Yeah...parasites.

Few things in fiction disturb people more than parasites. Stories about them often fall into a subgenre of fiction called "body horror."

Body Horror; or, Biological Horror

​A subgenre of horror that intentionally showcases grotesque or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body or to any other creature.

— Thanks Wikipedia

By now, you may have already guessed that The Puppet Masters—a science fiction novel—has something to do with body horror and parasites.

You'd be right.

And the reason I just spent so much time on Mary Shelley is that, in addition to inventing science fiction, she also invented body horror—all in the same novel she thought up for a little contest between friends.

Reginald Easton's miniature of Mary Shelley, allegedly drawn from her death mask (c. 1857), modernly meme-ified.

Now that we've appropriately acknowledged the great Mother of Science Fiction, we can look at a book that would have never existed without her.

Who Was Robert A. Heinlein?

American science fiction author, aeronautical engineer, and naval officer. He was considered a pioneer of hard science fiction and published 32 novels, 59 short stories, and 16 collections. So far, at least nine films, two television series, several episodes of radio series, and even a board game have been derived from his work.

Photo of Robert A. Heinlein in 1953. While there are more recent and clearer photos, I selected one with a cat.

For decades, he (Heinlein, not that cat) was one of the best-selling science fiction novelists. His work helped pave the way for science fiction in mainstream publishing and acceptance. He mentored Ray Bradbury and wrote under several pen names, which can be found today. During his career, he and Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were considered the "big three" of English language science fiction authors.

Often, he wrote novels with plots that challenged conventional social norms. Much of his work was (and still is) controversial, as it openly critiqued politics and organized religion and delved into sexual behavior. Writing about those topics might not seem that surprising today, but his first novel came out in 1947—a time when it was pretty shocking. He also invented a few terms and phrases you may have heard of, like "grok" and "speculative fiction." If that wasn't enough, he was responsible for popularizing terms like "pay it forward" and "space marine." Like other science fiction authors, some of his fictional inventions for stories actually became real inventions, like CAD (computer-aided design), waterbeds, and cell phones. Oh, and a bunch of Hugo Awards as well as other literary awards.

It's impossible to fit everything interesting about his life into a short article without looking like a TL;DR Wikipedia, so instead, let's look at one of his works as an example of some of the things you might find by exploring the Heinlein universe.

He also loved cats. Obviously, this is one of the most essential details.

"If you would know a man, observe how he treats a cat."

"How you behave toward cats here below determines your status in Heaven."

"Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat."

— Random collection of cat-related quotes by Robert A. Heinlein

A Brief Look: The Puppet Masters

You might want to stop reading if you're squeamish about parasites.

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein. US First Edition dust jacket cover.

Set in the near future, the story follows the events when Earth is invaded by extraterrestrial parasites known as "slugs." They're small, slimy organisms that sucker themselves into the backs of humans—specifically the spine. Once attached, they extend tendrils in the human host's nervous system, taking control of their thoughts and actions. They can manipulate and influence the mind of their hosts, similar to a human driving a car—or maybe more like a human riding a horse—effectively turning them into mindless puppets.

I'm sure you can see where the novel's name comes from.

The infected humans lose their free will and become completely obedient to the slug. The slug's control extends to both physical movements, as well as thoughts—making them incredibly dangerous and efficient during an alien invasion. Just imagine the havoc on the masses if the world's leaders in government and corporations were out to accomplish their own agenda, with a complete and total disregard for human life. 🤔

Because of the slug's control mechanism, they can effectively merge seamlessly with the host, making it difficult to tell who is infected and who isn't. At that point, everyone is suspect.

Sounds a lot like a horror story, doesn't it?

The paranoid fun doesn't stop there! The novel also draws analogies between the slugs and Communist Russia—which at the time echoed the Second Red Scare in the United States.

"Two particularly disturbing scenes in The Puppet Masters—the one in which members of the President's privately created Security Service hold at gunpoint the entire membership of both Houses of Congress and proceed to search out the traitors among them, and that in which armed vigilantes roam the streets in search of traitors and shoot to death with impunity anyone they suspect of being such. Both scenes make sense in the context of the book's Science Fictional setting, and both are highly scary if applied to real American life."

— Dr. George W. Stubbins (a person who has an excellent quote about the book, but someone I literally couldn't find a single thing about other than this quote.)

I'm guessing that after Dr. Stubbins wrote this, a slug attached itself to him, and they are now working in a secret underground lair to usher in a new era of Slug Life.

It's always fascinating to read books from decades past. With so many books coming out all the time, it's easy to get caught up in new releases, best sellers, celebrity book clubs, and even the latest best-seller-adapted-to-film hype. But if we look back, there are so many good books that really deserve a read. There are also many authors that have passed on that can't quite figure out how to engage in social media after death, so we can't rely on the latest TikTok or Reel to tell us what to read.

We'll have to do our own thinking and step away from the control of the algorithms.

Relevant & Related


Originally published in my weekly newsletter Into Horror History - every week, I explore the history and lore of horror, from influential creators to obscure events. Cryptids, ghosts, folklore, books, music, movies, strange phenomena, urban legends, psychology, and creepy mysteries.

book reviews

About the Creator

J.A. Hernandez

J.A. Hernandez enjoys horror, playing with cats, and hiding indoors away from the sun. Also, books. So many books—you wouldn't believe.

He runs a weekly newsletter called Into Horror History and writes fiction.


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Comments (9)

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  • Ariel Joseph19 days ago

    I don't know how I never knew that Heinlein mentored Bradbury! I haven't read The Puppet Masters though, it's going on my reading list!

  • Sam BTC19 days ago

    Sounds like my kind of book. Need to check it out, hope it's available on Amazon. Cheers!

  • Kendall Defoe 21 days ago

    I needed this! A well-deserved TS with a lot of information on a writer I have only glanced at in passing! Excellent!

  • Naveedkk 21 days ago

    Congratulations on your Top Story

  • I love classics! Especially science fiction! Well written!

  • Rachel Deeming21 days ago

    Never heard of Heinlein although I know Clarke and Asimov. Can I just say how engaging this was from start to finish? Funny and informative. Really good. Going to have to add Heinlein to my TBR list. And so it goes, and so it grows.

  • Mark Coughlin22 days ago

    Another fan of the master here. Heinlein was one of the first science fiction authors I read as a teenager and still reigns supreme in my heart. His at-times irreverant style inspire me to keep a tongue poised next to a cheek at times while attempting the Herculean task of word crafting.

  • Mark Gagnon22 days ago

    The Puppet Masters was the first sci-fi book I read when I was in my early teens. It was captivating and horrifying at the same time. I still remember most of it. Thanks for reminding me about it.

  • J.A. Hernandez: This is an impressive post. I am quite familiar with Mary Shelley's brilliance. I am a fan of FRANKENSTEIN, her book. I wholeheartedly agree that she invented science fiction. Though I am less familiar with Robert Heinlein, his work was a reference whenever friends of old recommended new books to me. When I get the time (who knows when that will be), I will revisit his books. BTW, if you are interested in a film reimagining of the character of Frankenstein, you might want to check out Penny Dreadful, the drama series. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2628232/ I cannot recall which episodes featured him, but I think the actors and writers paid homage to Shelley. Bravo to you! 👏

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