TT: Hidden Enemies

JANE: Last time you said something about Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade inspiring other stories…

Puppet Master

Puppet Master

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. In The High Crusade, an alien ship lands in England in 1345. In Michael Flynn’s novel Eifelheim (2006), an alien ship lands in Germany in 1349. However despite this and other similarities to The High Crusade, Flynn’s novel goes in a completely different direction from Anderson’s. The theme of Eifelheim is primarily theological. The German priest Deitrich has to battle with two (perhaps blasphemous) ideas. Can aliens become Christians? And where is God when catastrophes happen?

Michael Flynn is a greatly under-rated author. He really deserves to be much better known than he is.

JANE: Ooh…  That sounds grand.  Where is God when catastrophes happen is, of course, a perennial theological question.

However, the other goes to the heart of the issue of what is a soul and can anyone other than humans possess one?  SF is not the first literary area to attempt to deal with this.  The Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Mermaid” (the original, not the Disney version) has this at its heart, as do all those lovely tales where animals kneel down on Christmas and the like…

ALAN: Quite so. C. S. Lewis wrestled with this complex theological issue in his Space Trilogy – Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus, and That Hideous Strength. And James Blish addresses similar problems in his 1958 novel,  A Case of Conscience.

JANE:  Voyage to Venus is better known in the U.S. as Perelandra.  Good book, although seriously creepy at times.

Another good example of how Alien Invasion stories echo the fears of the time is the manner in which the McCarthyism through Cold War years spawned covert op “puppetmaster” type tales, representing the “alien among us” fears.

ALAN: Yes indeed. Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers was published in 1955 at the height of the communist invasion paranoia. The soulless “pod people” are generally considered to be a commentary about what life would be like under a communist regime. The theme must have struck some sort of chord, because the book has been filmed four times (usually under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

JANE: As I mentioned last time, my novel Smoke and Mirrors also has hidden aliens – and since I grew up during the Cold War, I suspect it owes something to the paranoia about spies that was prevalent during my formative years.

I’ve been frequently asked if I was influenced by either Finney’s work or Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters.  Oddly enough, the answer is “no” to both.  By the time I was reading SF/F, both books were certainly classics in the field, but in my erratic reading – which was mostly informed by what I found at the library that looked appealing or what friends gave me – I didn’t stumble across them.  In fact, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve still not read either of them.  Or seen the movie…

Maybe you could educate me?

ALAN: Goodness me – colour me astonished! The Body Snatchers tells of a mindless “invasion” of interstellar spores. The seeds duplicate human beings, growing them from pods and reducing the original human victims to dust.

Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is thematically similar. It was actually published four years before Finney’s novel, though it is not as well known. Slug-like creatures arrive in flying saucers and attach themselves to people’s backs, taking control of their victims’ nervous systems, and manipulating those people like puppets on a string.

Both the pod people and the puppets are generally considered to symbolise the way that  people are constrained and controlled by totalitarian regimes. And given that both works date from the 1950s, clearly the references are to Soviet Russia.

JANE:  Hmm…  Despite my past life as a literature professor, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of analyses that draw these kinds of parallels, mostly because as an author I know how often they’re wrong!

ALAN: As it happens, I do have some evidence for my analysis. Heinlein’s original manuscript for The Puppet Masters ran to about 90,000 words. It was severely edited for the magazine serial and the novel – both were about 60,000 words long. In 1990, Heinlein’s original, unedited manuscript was finally published. The Soviet references are much more blatant in the unedited version; so much so that really no doubt remains about what Heinlein was trying to say.

In many ways, the 60,000 word version is a much better book. It’s more subtle, and the prose is much less flabby. Unfortunately it seems to have vanished from the world. All the editions published since 1990 have been of the unedited version.

JANE: I wonder why Heinlein’s novel didn’t have the same impact as Finney’s? It certainly sounds like a compelling tale.  Though slugs…  (Shiver!)

ALAN: I suspect that it’s because Heinlein’s novel was first published in a pulp magazine (Galaxy) whereas Finney’s was published in a slick magazine with a much wider readership (Colliers).

JANE: The alien invasion novel certainly hasn’t died either because we have accepted the role of technology in our lives or because of the diminished fear of the “communist menace.”  However, it does continue to take on new shapes.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is a good example of this.  Although ostensibly a “children’s” book – the protagonist is only eleven – it deals with issues like relocation of indigenous populations, reservations, cultural assumptions and the like.  These elements made it – for me – a very thoughtful tale.

In 2015, it was made into a film that I haven’t seen with the title Home – a title that, to me, undermines the entire point of the novel because, although a “road trip” novel, the real journey is one of intercultural understanding.

ALAN: That sounds like an interesting book. A lot of really good books fly under the radar because they are published as “children’s” books or YA novels. For several years I’ve been a book buyer for my godchildren and I’ve really enjoyed some of the books they’ve asked for. Not that I really need an excuse to read a YA novel, of course. A good book is a good book no matter what label the publisher attaches to it. I’ll add Adam Rex to my list of authors.

JANE: I hope you enjoy The True Meaning of Smekday.

ALAN:  I have a thought as to where we might tangent off to next time…  Let me see if I can send you the idea telepathically.

JANE: Ah-hah!  Got it, excellent idea!  I look forward to chatting about it next week.

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