The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
First published 1955; New Edition published by Gollancz, November 2010 (Review copy received.)
ISBN: 978 0 575 08531 2
Review by Mark Yon
Here’s another of those names that deserve to be better known, in my opinion. Though Jack Finney is a name you may have heard of, I doubt it’s one that immediately springs to mind in the SF canon, even though Jack was the recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1987, and Time and Again (1970) is often seen as one of the best time travel tales of all time, though not widely known.
And that’s a shame. Jack is one of those authors whose writing has been better well known through the films of his work, rather than the actual book.
So here’s perhaps a good place to start, with a re-evaluation of one of his better-known writings.
The Body Snatchers you may know as the films The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both in 1956 and 1978) and The Invasion (2007). I say that with trepidation, in that knowing of the films perhaps devalues the book: many will say they know the book, having seen the film/s.
But, good though some of those films are, the book for me is subtler, and more refined work. Its apparent effortlessness as it unfolds and its rapid pace belies a work of deceptive power. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that the writer’s background in advertising enables him to write with precision and effectiveness.
The story starts with what seems to be a 1950’s idyll: August 1953 in small-town America, with a leisurely lifestyle and a homely nature. Our hero of the tale, told in the first person, is Doctor Miles Bennell, who lives a happy existence in Santa Mira (Mill Valley), California. When closing the surgery one night, Miles’ childhood friend Becky Driscoll visits to ask about her cousin Wilma’s strange behaviour. She doesn’t believe that her Uncle Ira is really her Uncle Ira…
Cunningly we are gradually told that this wonderful, if rather dull, life is changing, that people are not the real people. Miles and Becky find that their initial scepticism becomes something that may be real as the number of these cases that are reported increase. Friends also tell of similar cases. Manny Kaufman, a psychologist, is asked for advice. And then acquaintances Theodora and Jack Belicec find something in the garage that is just unbelievable…
The central horror is this: that in idyllic America, all white picket fence and Mom’s apple pie, with good people doing good things, we have a secret – that people are not who we think they are and that our friends and loved ones are changed from that which we know and love to something that is bland, conformative, where everyone is a blank canvas, programmed to be part of a communicatively conjoined society. And that is a creepy, illicit and supremely effective horror: it can happen any time, to anybody.
To this we have a character that lives in a place that he’s known for most of his life, who has things that have not changed throughout his life, yet seemingly change overnight. It’s the spinster librarian who fed Miles’s childhood reading habit but turns into something nasty, the main street of people who stop waving and smiling to each other, the decline of trade in the town as the aliens discourage ‘outsiders’ and in fact the blank indifference to outsiders and lack of human contact that creates the horror here.
Things are perfectly ordinary and yet they are not – and that is the horror. This book not only tells of fear, a trepidation of change and the possible decline of a person’s sanity, but a loss of things that are ordinary, rational and normal. And that’s why, even with its dated moments – it works.
The link between this paranoia and the secret threat of subversive Communism in the 1950’s has been made before. The invasion issue is initially left ambiguous in the novel: it is first posed as a psychological phenomenon, or even a dream-like condition, which the new cover shows admirably. Later of course we realise that it is an alien invasion, a point that in the book, unlike the 1956 film, is cleverly and subtly examined, counter-argued and eventually proposed as a viable explanation. By the end you believe that it is a possible and sensible solution.
There are lapses in the tale that show its 1950’s origins – the role of women in the tale is rather stereotyped, events are ’queer’ and also ’gay’, boyfriends and girlfriends in their late-twenties are chaperoned, characters smoke and drink as if they’re competing with characters from one of the latest episodes of Mad Men – and yet, at its core is a sense of creeping paranoia, of things not being right, in what should be an idyllic Bradbury-esque small town environment, striking that feeling of unease. (Interestingly, the book was slightly revised in 1978 by Finney to tie in with the second movies release. Here we have the original.)
There’s the odd clunk and info-dump, but nothing too jarring.
Would this work as a novel today?
Perhaps not (see the 2007 film The Invasion for why not): and consequently, it is perhaps something that works best as a product of its time. It works when towns were often isolated things, communications between places less common than today and everyone in a settlement knew everyone else.
Is this communism or urbanisation? Is it post-war malaise or something more insidious? That’s what makes this book creep, and why it has created one of the genre’s most enduring lodestones.
The introduction by Graham Sleight, as you might expect from the Locus writer, is both informative and knowledgeable, though may be best read after you’ve read the tale. I think there’s a great deal of mileage in reading this novel with no background at all: not easy for such a now-well-known genre trope.
In summary, this is a brief, yet still effective tale. Though it has dated a little, it is still powerfully successful. Recommended.
Mark Yon, October 2010