18 February 2015

Books: The Puppet Masters By Robert Heinlein (1951)

In the summer of 2007 Earth is under clandestine attack. Slug-like creatures, arriving in flying saucers, are attaching themselves to people’s backs, taking control of their victims’ nervous systems, and manipulating those people as puppets. The Old Man, the head of clandestine national security agency called the Section, goes to Des Moines, Iowa, with Sam and Mary, two of his best agents, to investigate a flying saucer report, but much more seriously the ominous disappearance of the six agents sent previously. They discover that the slugs are steadily taking over Des Moines, but they cannot convince the President to declare an emergency. Sam takes two other agents and returns to Des Moines to get more evidence of the invasion. They fail and are obliged to leave the city quickly, but in the confusion of their fleeing the city’s television center a slug sneaks onto one of the agents. Back in Washington the team discovers the slug and captures it, but later it escapes and attaches itself to Sam, using Sam’s skills and knowledge to make a clean escape. Thoroughly puppetized, Sam begins to infiltrate more slugs into the city, using the Constitution Club as a recruiting center. He’s gotten off to a good start when the Old Man captures him, takes him to Section’s new headquarters, and interrogates the slug through Sam. Under drug-induced hypnosis Sam reveals that the slugs come from Titan, the sixth moon of Saturn. After recuperating from his ordeal, Sam finds that the President and Congress are ready to accept the idea that the United States has been infiltrated and they mandate a law that requires people to go naked to demonstrate that they are not carrying slugs.
According to Wikipedia, Heinlein's original version of The Puppet Masters was heavy edited, mostly because it was considered too risque for the 1951 audience -in the original version the book begins with Sam waking up in bed with a blonde whom he had casually picked up the evening before, without even bothering to learn her name!! Anyways, in 1990, two years after he passed, his widow authorized a new expanded version that reinstated a majority of what was cut 40 years previous. However, there is also a few unintentional humorous phrases that may have not seemed funny back even in 1990 -Schedule Bare Back- but now make me snicker every time I read it. Then there is how liberal he made the US, including the idea that everyone who did not want to be possessed by the titans was walking around naked. I'm certain, no matter what, there would be plenty of Americans (stuck in their Puritan ways) who would never walk around in public without a stitch of clothes on. I can see why some of these parts were edited out in 1951. 
As I've mentioned before, reading these novels later in life rather than when I was in my teens, I'm not so impressed with the plotting or the science. The Puppet Masters does try to invoke the Cold War aspect between the United States and Russia (set in 2007 there has been a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West which left both sides battered but unbroken, but then we fell back in another Cold War), but all I could think about was how this book shared a similar premise with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even though that film was not released until 1956. But like Asimov's Foundation book, the story is a bit dry -a lot of talking with some minor action. Meanwhile, on the science side, in Heinlein's early 21st Century we have flying cars, we have space stations, and have a colony on Venus. Still, there is no communication satellites and TV broadcast are still line-of-sight as they were when Heinlein wrote the book. While this plays into the plot, it was hard part for me to grasp in 2015. 
I'm guessing that if I continue to read these books from long ago, I'm going to some how figure out how to understand them better. It's not that they're poorly written and all, it's just everything I've grown up with, all those science fiction movies and TV series are all built on the foundation people like Heinlein created. I've got to get passed the block in my mind that says "Seen this done before. Next."
You know what I mean?

09 February 2015

Books: Swan Song By Robert McCammon (1987)

While the post-apocalyptic genre has been around for many generations, I've only read a handful of them -after all not many writers bring something new to add to the table. Still, since nuclear war, World War III, was always the catalyst for the story, I usually passed them over. Stephen King's The Stand, which I read around 1980, was the first of this genre (I think) to end world not with a bang, but with a whisper -a super flu (called Captain Trips). Since the 1978 release of King's book, a lot of authors have used some sort of mutated organism to end the world. 

Back in 1987, when Robert McCammon released Swan Song, I was not put off by it's mass market length (956 pages), but by the fact that for me, King's The Stand was the best book ever written about the end of the world. Also, since I had discovered King, he became the only author I really wanted to read in the horror fiction genre. Yes, I read John Saul, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and few others, but they all seemed to pale next King (especially Koontz, someone I always deemed as conservative Americans safe horror writer; a guy who produced paint-by-numbers fiction designed not to be anything distasteful or liberal). And this tendency to read one author in one genre never applied to science fiction or fantasy that I read, as I bounced all over the place in my early years of reading (though I think everyone has tendency to stick to their favorite author). Yet, despite my misgivings, I do remember owing a copy of Swan Song. But I never read it. 

Now nearly 28 years since its first release, I discovered a copy (first printing as well) of McCammon's epic novel at a Goodwill store. Having given away some books due to moving around (ones that I felt I would never get too), I thought maybe this time was the universe telling me it was finally time to read this book. 

On the edge of a barren Kansas landscape, an ex-wrestler called Black Frankenstein hears the cry..."Protect the Child!"---In the wasteland of New York City, a bag lady clutches a strange glass ring and feels magic coursing through her---Within an Idaho mountain, a survivalist compound lies in ruins, and a young boy learns how to kill. In a wasteland born of nuclear rage, in a world of mutant animals and marauding armies, the last people on earth are now the first. There is Sister, who discovers the strange and transformative glass artifact in the destroyed Manhattan streets; Joshua Hutchins, the wrestler who takes refuge from the nuclear fallout at a Nebraska gas station; and Swan, a young girl possessing special powers, who travels alongside Josh to a Missouri town where healing and recovery can begin with Swan's gifts. While the destines of those who survived the unsurvivable are inedibly bound to meet, there is also another entity, an ancient evil that now roams the blasted nightmare country, an evil as old as time. He is the Man with the Scarlet Eye, the Man of Many Faces, and he'll gather under his power the forces of human greed and madness that always seem to survive. For he seeks to destroy the one thing that he knows can stop him, stop his party as he says, a young girl called Swan.

A lot of Swan Song resembles King's The Stand, but I don't think that is bad. My biggest issue with the book comes in the form of James Macklin (though thanks to Parks & Recreation, I kept think of Chris Pratt's character of Andy Dwyer and his fake FBI agent Burt Macklin) and Roland Croninger, two of the villains of the book who the reader knows from their first introductions that they're psychotic and evil sociopaths. As noted, the book is 950 plus pages long, and you would think that you might give the reader a chance to like these guys before turing them into horrible people. Instead, we see their evilness from the get go. Also, we don't get much information of entity that is Friend (as he calls himself towards the end, but went under several names before). We can assume that he's some sort of demon, but who and how he came into existence is never fully explained. 

Is McCammon, as he has said, "'the poor man's Stephen King,' and that I was 'walking on King and Straub's territory,' that I was a rip-off artist and a hack with no style of my own?" I'm not sure, as I thought the book was still well written. The thing is, I understand the publishing industry (like most media) is based on flavor of the month. And what is hugely successful must have an imitation. Stephen King can be credited with bringing the horror genre out of the dark Gothic corner it painted itself into by setting his tales in modern times with easily accessible and (importantly) believable characters, but I always knew that other publishers were going to capitalize on that. I think McCammon does a fine job here, even if he borrows heavily from King.

Will I read more of his work? I'm sure I'll try -Boy's Life has always interested me- but at this stage in my life, I will never say never. All options are open.