The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

Toby Frost

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Perhaps there are two ways to write great SFF. One is to show people amazing sights, dazzle them with things that they will never have seen before. Dune, the Gormenghast books and The Lord of the Rings are like this. The other way is to write about a theme or an issue: maybe not in as direct a way as 1984, but to take a concept or a fear, and to explore it. The Forever War, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Island of Doctor Moreau and much of Philip K Dick’s work seem to me to fall into this latter category.

And so does Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers. A doctor in a quiet town in 1950’s America receives a run of patients who are convinced that their friends and neighbours are imposters. As the phenomenon starts to spread, the hero is forced to take their claims increasingly seriously. When the patients start to withdraw their complaints, everything seems to be going back to normal – unless they too are being replaced...

Finney tells his story in clear, unpretentious prose, although when he needs to, he can write chilling stuff. The descriptions of the pod-people forming are quite unsettling, especially since they seem to favour the shadowy parts of people’s homes to compete their replacement of the original occupants. The exact way in which the podlings assimilate the people they replace is never explained in detail, making it all the more sinister.

The real success of the novel is the sense of creeping paranoia that it imparts. Of course the pod people won’t admit that they’re not human. So, logically, anyone who claims to be human... could be one of them. Is the telephone not quite working right? They cut it off. And what about your friends, eh? They keep telling you that you can trust them, the conniving alien bastards! You could call this a metaphor for the threat of Communism or the McCarthy witch-hunt, but the sense of paranoia goes deeper than mere politics, to an instinctive, almost phobic level.

That said, the 1950s is the perfect backdrop for a story like this. Finney understands the appeal of the nice, quiet town (the computer game Fallout springs to mind), to the point where the fact that the pod people don’t repaint their fences seems to herald the end of civilisation. If the lead players are a bit thinly characterised, it’s enough to know that they are Nice, Normal People. Finney knows what he’s doing, though. Two of the strongest scenes in the book come from Finney turning two stock characters of the time – the jolly black menial and the feeble, shrieking heroine – upside down.

Cleverly, and perhaps surprisingly given the setting, the podlings are not obvious invaders – no marching and uniforms here. Instead, there’s just something wrong with them, a sense that not only are they unable to copy some human attributes – in particular, creativity and love – but they are a mockery of humans, and on some level take pleasure from knowing it. Describing the threat they pose is difficult: they’re just wrong, on a deep and sinister level.

Is the ending something of a cop-out? It’s hard to say, although The Body Snatchers wraps itself up very quickly. Perhaps sometimes the characters don’t react to the threat in the most logical way. But in a way the end isn’t the point. As with the stories I mentioned above, the concept is what hits hard, and what lingers. The Body Snatchers is a knock-out punch of a novel, a one-off story, which perhaps explains why it has had no sequels but four film adaptations. As the trend continues for sequels and epics to extend to the point of becoming soap opera, it’s hard not to think that more SFF should be like this book.
 

Kylara

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Mmm I keep looking for it, and have never managed to find it which is a shame, it's just the sort of story I love, I have read synopsis and reviews of it though. The 50s film was brilliant, one of my favourite older SF films actually, the 2007(?) one was terrible, far too violent, I think they missed the point entirely...also I think Meyer shamelessy ripped the whole idea from it in The Host...I was unimpressed by that. I can get borrowing themes, but try to be original!
It is something I have always wanted to read though...I must get it before the end of the year...
Wonderful idea though which brings to mind the phrase "just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after me"...
 

Toby Frost

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It made me think of that phrase as well! Clearly there is some very paranoid explanation for this involving mind-reading...

I've been looking out for the book for a while. The copy I got is in the SF Masterworks series. The 1970's film is very good as well - on a par with the original but different. I don't remember The Host, but I remember a film called The Faculty, which used a lot of 50's SF ideas but set it in a school. There seemed to be a fad for remaking anything as high-school drama back then, and although it borrowed from The Body Snatchers to a degree, I don't think it was particularly good.
 

Kylara

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Maybe we are slowly be assimilated into a greater being that will one day rule the galaxy!
Or maybe we were both victims of an alien abduction, both subconsciously noting their evil plan to steal our spoons...
Or maybe the fish whisper it to us at night, from their tanks in the pet shop down the road...
Or or or or maybe we are both total and utter geniuses, nothing could possibly get past our combined might! Except maybe a caterpillar dog on a bicycle...but c'mon those things are awesome! (or maybe a dragon...sneaky little buggers those)
 

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