Thursday, 4 July 2013

Jack Finney: The Body Snatchers (1955)

Edition: Gollancz, 2010
Review number: 1478

Jack Finney's most famous novel, filmed four times (and also known, like two of the films, as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers), is a masterclass in how to manage tension in a thriller.

The story is set in the small town of Santa Mira (oddly, wrongly named on the back cover of this edition) in northern California, a place where seemingly nothing ever changes. The narrator is the town's doctor, Miles Bennell, and begins when a patient comes to see him with a bizarre story: her uncle is no longer her uncle. Things escalate, and it soon appears that only a few humans are left in a town where everyone else has been replaced by aliens who look identical to the originals and even share their memories.

The way that the tension is built up is fairly obvious. Each chapter ends with a statement of increasing loneliness, as more and more possibilities are blocked off (the phone exchange is taken over, a friend in the army is unable to help, and so on).  It's a simple trick, but very effective.

There has been a fair amount of criticism of The Body Snatchers over the years. Its science is clearly suspect, though that is true of a lot of science fiction. Here, though, there is some self-contradiction (the pods from which the aliens come are said to be moved by light pressure, but then rise from the surface of the earth, for example). It has a straightforward plot, and the characters other than Miles are basically ciphers.

In the earliest film version, the alien interlopers are clearly signposted as a metaphor for Communist infiltration into the US of the fifties. As Graham Sleight points out in his introduction to this edition, this interpretation is not anything like as obvious in the novel: it is consistent with it, but not required. I would agree with him that what comes across more as the point of Finney's writing is related to the end of the innocent small town community portrayed in Santa Mira at the beginning of the story. Even in that now lost (and possibly never really existing) culture, did anyone really know their neighbours through and through?

But these issues do not prevent The Body Snatchers from  being a much loved genre classic, and the way that Finney constructs the story and carries the reader along into an increasingly paranoid and tense situation is the reason why. My rating: 9/10.

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