Posts Tagged 'starship troopers'

Schedule Bare Back.

With President-Elect Joe Biden qualifying his earlier call for a national mask mandate, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the last attempt to alter American sartorial customs by presidential order.

I’m speaking, of course, of 2007, when in response to a grave biological threat the president addressed a joint session of congress:

When the President took the rostrum, he waited until he got dead silence. Then slowly, calmly, he started taking off clothes. He stopped when he was bare to the waist. He then turned around, lifting his arms. At last he spoke.

“I did that,” he said, “so that you might see that your Chief Executive is not a prisoner of the enemy.” He paused.

“But how about you?

Despite the president’s challenge, the assembled senators and congresspeople remained seated, reluctant to sacrifice their dignity – until Senator Gottlieb, a survivor of the contagion, shakily rose and removed his shirt, exposing a back still raw with the “scarlet mark of the parasite”.

Pulling out a gun, the senator then ordered his colleagues to start stripping.

robert a. heinlein the puppet masters

Fortunately for the sanity of C-SPAN viewers, this disturbing scene unfolded not in our recent past, but in the fictional future of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

The brain-hijacking alien parasites of that 1951 novel are able to blend in perfectly among uninfected humans – as long as their hosts are fully dressed. With the citizenry stripped naked to the waist in accordance with the president’s order, it’s easy to spot the pulsating slug-like creatures latched to the spines of the infected.

But will the country comply with Schedule Bare Back?

In the uncontaminated areas people took off their shirts, willingly or reluctantly, looked around them and found no parasites. They watched their newscasts and wondered and waited for the government to tell them that the danger was over. But nothing happened, and both laymen and local officials began to doubt the necessity of running around in sunbathing costumes.

Other skeptics go further, fulminating that the supposed invasion is actually “a tyrannical Washington plot”. In the areas of the country already controlled by the slugs, TV stations pump out propaganda accusing the central government of having gone crazy. Meanwhile, back in the capital, those with direct experience of the danger are plotting geometric growth trajectories of the kind with which we have lately become all too familiar:

Assume a thousand slugs in that space ship, the one we believed to have landed near Kansas City; suppose that they could reproduce when given opportunity every twenty-four hours.

First day, one thousand slugs.

Second day, two thousand.

Third day, four thousand.

At the end of the first week, the eighth day, that is—a hundred and twenty-eight thousand slugs.

After two weeks, more than sixteen million slugs.

What’s worse, one of the fundamental assumptions behind Schedule Bare Back – that the slugs must attach themselves near the base of the skull in order to control their hosts’ brains – proves to be untrue. In fact, they can attach themselves to any bit of flesh, including all of it still hidden below people’s beltlines.

This discovery leads before long to the imposition of the even more exacting Schedule Sun Tan. [1]

***

In a book review from 1978, Clive James echoed the conventional critical line on Robert A. Heinlein, that he was a hairy-chested keyboard-basher “whose politics were largely indistinguishable from those of John Wayne”: [2]

His Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, quite apart from their unarguable virtues as adventure stories, have the additional quality of representing the authoritarian instinct in its purest form and thereby helping us to comprehend it. [3]

James died last year, before the emergence of Covid-19 and the unprecedented measures hastily implemented to contain it. Would he have characterized our past nine months of lockdowns, shutdowns, travel restrictions, masks, queues, and one-way shopping aisles as manifestations of the “authoritarian instinct”?

Perhaps they are. The question, as always, is whether unprecedented measures are justified by the circumstances, and how they are modified as circumstances change. (The income tax, as libertarians like to remind us, was introduced to Canada as a temporary measure during World War I.)

In The Puppet Masters, after the imposition of Schedule Sun Tan, people adjust with surprising swiftness to the abolition of the nudity taboo:

Ugly bodies weren’t any more noticeable than ugly taxicabs; the eye ignored them. And so it appeared to be with everybody; those on the streets seemed to have acquired utter indifference. Skin was skin and what of it?

the puppet masters robert heinlein don sibley illustrator

The introduction of Schedule Sun Tan. Illustration by Don Sibley in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1951. Scan by Rafeeq McGiveron.

Those with a preference for old notions of modesty soon learn to keep their objections to themselves. In 2020 the most zealous enforcers of mask-wearing have limited their reprisals to shaming the unmasked or, at worst, siccing the cops on them; in the more hysterical atmosphere of Heinlein’s novel, naked, heavily-armed vigilantes can be found loitering on street corners, scanning their surroundings for an inch of uncovered flesh, prepared to fire without warning on “any unexplained excrescence on a human body”.

Whatever “authoritarian instinct” might have motivated the author, the hero of The Puppet Masters is far from enthusiastic about such impingements on his liberty. As he and his team celebrate their discovery of a biological agent that they hope will kill the aliens without harming their human hosts, the hero allows himself to muse about returning to the good old pre-parasite social order. A colleague disillusions him:

“Mr. Nivens, as long as there exists a possibility that a slug is alive the polite man must be willing to bare his body on request—or risk getting shot. Not just this week and next, but twenty years from now, or a hundred. No, no!” he added, “I am not disparaging your plans—but you have been too busy to notice that they are strictly local and temporary. For example, have you made any plans for combing the Amazonian jungles, tree by tree?” …

“Are you trying to tell me it’s hopeless?” I demanded.

“Hopeless? Not at all. Have another drink. I’m trying to say that we are going to have to learn to live with this horror, the way we had to learn to live with the atom bomb.”

As we toast our arrival at a comparable stage in humanity’s war against Covid-19, our health authorities have taken to issuing similarly deflating pronouncements. The other day Timandra Harkness vented in UnHerd:

But I do remember very clearly that when I heard that Health Person solemnly say that, vaccine or no vaccine, we would still be wearing masks and social distancing and so on for the next 18 months, my response was not fit to print.

Even after the vulnerable have been immunized, even after herd immunity has been reached – indeed, as long as Covid-19 is circulating out there among bats, cats, and muskrats, building strength in preparation for another wave – the Health People will insist that we must keep up our defenses. We’re already wearing the masks, the Health People will say. We’ve already gotten in the habit of queuing and distancing. Easier to keep up habits we’ve already learned than give them up and have to learn them all over again.

It’s possible we won’t be free of the Health People’s nagging until the disease has been wiped from the face of the earth. Here are two of Timandra Harkness’ UnHerd colleagues arguing that Covid probably isn’t eradicable – but that we should make it our mission to attempt to eradicate it anyway:

Once the first wave of mass Covid vaccination begins, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We should do our very best to free ourselves of this virus forever.

As The Puppet Masters draws to a close, the heroes’ biological weapon has succeeded, but the victors aren’t content with the reconquest of the American heartland. Apart from whatever slugs might be out there clinging to the spines of forest creatures, there are who knows how many millions swarming on the slug homeworld, still intent, for all anyone knows, on enslaving the human race.

The last we hear from the hero, he is putting the final touches on his memoir before blasting off to take part in the counterinvasion. “Puppet masters—the free men are coming to kill you!” he declares. “Death and Destruction!

That must be one of the lines Clive James had in mind when he spoke of Heinlein’s “authoritarian instinct”. The Health People will probably want to dream up a less blood-chilling slogan for the next stage of their crusade.

M.

1. As I’ve already discussed at length, Heinlein – a nudist – wasn’t shy about shoehorning his personal and political obsessions into his stories.

Although The Puppet Masters is the only one of his books in which nudism is a major theme, in practically all his output from the late 1960s onward you’ll find at least one scene where the characters, as soon as they’re out of sight of the rubes, happily shuck their clothes.

Even where Heinlein eschewed overt nudist propaganda, his fictional futures were often characterized by a laid-back attitude towards the display of flesh. It’s always a bit jarring – deliberately, I’m sure – when the hero, whom you’ve been vaguely picturing dressed in trousers and jacket, or maybe a jumpsuit, makes some offhand comment like, “I was wearing tights myself (unpadded) and sometimes oil my upper body on social occasions.” (From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.)

2. Clive James’ comment on Heinlein appears as an aside in a pan of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian satire 1985. I came across it in the essay collection From the Land of Shadows.

3. Heinlein fans are used to seeing Starship Troopers dismissed as an emanation of the fascist id. While that’s unfair, at least you can see where the book’s critics are coming from – it can be read as an apologia for imperialism, militarism, and (human) racial supremacism. It’s unusual to find it lumped together with The Puppet Masters, which apart from some passing swipes at communism isn’t even noticeably right-wing, let alone “authoritarian”.

(Coincidentally, those two are among the disappointingly small handful of Heinlein stories that have been turned into movies; here one of the screenwriters of the 1994 adaption of The Puppet Masters explains why it turned out such a botch.)

In his 1980 collection Expanded Universe Heinlein defended Starship Troopers against some of its lazier attackers. In that novel, the right to vote is granted only to those who have fulfilled two years of voluntary federal service; what really irked his liberal critics, Heinlein speculated, was

the dismaying idea that a voice in governing the state should be earned instead of being handed to anyone who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37°C.

He mulled a few other ideas for ensuring a “responsible electorate”, including:

[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth—and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system—smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers—and fathers—decline to be humiliated twice.

I quoted the above passage before, in a footnote to my post on Nevil Shute’s “multiple voting” scheme.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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