Rereading: THREE BY HEINLEIN

3ByHeinleinThis is one of the books I ordered when I joined the Science Fiction Book Club around 1965, and I haven’t read it for at least 30 years, maybe more. It contains a novel, “The Puppet Masters,” and two shorter works, probably of novella length, that have long been published together. The three works do not go together thematically in any way, and even Heinlein thought it was an odd combination, but when this book first saw print in 1951, getting any science fiction into hardcovers by a major publisher (Doubleday) was still a rare event, and welcomed by the author and fans alike.

“The Puppet Masters” is Heinlein in top form telling a suspenseful and chilling alien invasion story. It was written in 1950, when reports of flying saucers were spiking in the news, and the cold war was getting underway. Both inform this book, in which the alien invaders are slug-like creatures who take over human minds, riding the neck and spinal column of their victims, and operating people like we might drive a car. The victim is aware of some things, but cut off from all self-control and emotion. From the time the first invader ship lands in middle America to the final battle for control of North America, Heinlein paints a convincing portrait of the invaders and the special forces crew trying to stop them. Sam and Mary are the young operatives, their boss, The Old Man, is in charge, and has the President’s ear, but even once they understand the threat, the invaders make it very difficult for anyone to believe it, as they keep up outward appearances wherever they take over. This would have made a great 1950s film with the same kind of impact as “Invaders From Mars,” and it almost happened, but was spoiled by an American International rip-off of the idea called “The Brain Eaters.”

“Waldo” has the distinction of having a Heinlein idea in it that became a word in the dictionary. The main character is a brilliant inventor with a disease that makes him almost immobile and helpless on Earth. In space, though, he can get along okay with the help of mechanical extensions of his hands and arms that mimic his weak movements with power and strength, over a wide range of sizes. The story was written in 1941, and by 1945 had been realized for work on radioactive materials from a distance. Remote manipulators are still widely used today, though the name “waldo” seems to be fading. The other part of the story involves some very unlikely theories about how things work that borders more on magic than science, an unlikely story concept for Heinlein, and the story gets harder to believe as you read it, even as you root for Waldo himself to overcome his disability.

“Magic, Inc.” on the other hand, written in the late 1930s, takes ideas for magic, magicians and demons that have appeared in fantasies for centuries, and imagines a system of using them in everyday life in a sort of alternate world where magic is used for everything and everything, and magicians are well-paid and respected members of every small town and community. In one small town, though, the building business of the protagonist, Archie, is being squeezed by a thug who wants Archie to only use HIS spells and magicians. If Archie doesn’t comply, their magic will ruin his business. It’s a protection racket, and it’s happening all over town. Archie is not going to agree or sit still for it, and is soon gathering friends and allies to fight the racket. Before long they’ve discovered the gang has powerful allies, even in Hell, and a dangerous trip there will be necessary to get to the bottom of things. This fun story is really a gangster crime one with clever magic taking the place of guns and muscles, and it holds up well on rereading today.

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