book review: (invasion of) the body snatchers

Original Title: The Body Snatchers; title updated to Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the 1978 edition.  Written by Jack Finney, originally published in 1954 as a short story and as a novel in 1955.  Film versions in 1956, 1978 (my favorite – w/Donald Sutherland), 1993 (Meg Tilly, R Lee Ermy & Forest Whitaker), and 2007 (w/Nicole Kidman & Daniel Craig).

Written in 1954 but set in 1976, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a science fiction classic.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  It’s a fun, fast read.  It won’t challenge you intellectually, but you’ll have fun.  I take that back, actually – you very well may engage in some deeper thinking when you finish this book, I think, but that’s really kind of based on your background more than Finney’s story.

One interesting thing in the story is that the two main characters – Dr. Miles Bennell (our hero) and Becky Driscoll – go to see a movie at one point.  They go see Time and Again – which happens to be another novel written by Finney.  This is a retcon introduced in the 1978 revision – because Finney didn’t write that book until 1970 and it was never made into a movie.  It’s a time travel story, and the method of time travel in that book was used in a movie (1980 – Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour), but even that happened after the revision. (I suppose it would have been in the works in 1978, though.)  I don’t have access to a 1955 version of the story, so it may not have originally been set in 1976; Miles is telling the story in the past tense, after all.

The entire novel feels blissfully set in the early 1950s, and indeed Finney serialized this story in Collier’s Magazine in 1954, just another of many short stories he wrote that was published that way.  He fleshed it out a little, adding characters and plot side-points (but not too many, and they’re not too distracting) for the 1955 novel.

Reading the story from a 21st century perspective, the characters – our heroes plus the Belicecs, Theodora (Teddy) and Jack – seem a bit … well, stupid at times.  Miles is a medical doctor with a small family practice – he’s just wrapped up a sprained thumb as the story opens.  Jack is a writer (a nice call-out for Finney himself) and there’s no real indication of what the two women do for a living – or any of the women, actually, which somebody in 2015 might think is weird.

In 1955, not so much.  It would have been nearly scandalous that both Miles and Becky were divorced to somebody reading the book in 1955.  Divorce wasn’t uncommon back then, but divorced people were viewed as more …damaged… by American society, and as such, it would have been no surprise that Miles and Becky end up together.  (Don’t worry, I’m not ruining that – it’s clearly broadcasted from their first meeting that they’ll become an item.)  Their relationship builds as gradually as the story, and there’s some real emotion in it on Miles’ part.  When they finally have sex, it’s portrayed chastely, tastefully, and I wouldn’t hesitate to have a younger pre-teen (that already knows about sex) read this book.  Miles’ description of their first kiss is sweet, tender and full of emotion – which brings me to my next point.

Emotion is the central theme of the book, perhaps, or one of them.  It’s the way the characters identify the pod people.

Oh, wait a minute.  I need to back up.

IMG_1139The town of Santa Mira, a sleepy hamlet near US 101 in California not far from San Diego, is just like any other small town in America.  You can feel the small town atmosphere in Finney’s writing, it just oozes charm and beauty.  Some time in September or October 1976, though, pods drifted into town.

From outer space.

The pods, we soon learn, contain aliens that exist as parasitical mimics.  They float through space, gently, unthreateningly, until they find a planet teeming with life.  They morph themselves in a process that’s described in detail in the book – it’s not disgusting in the least, but it is fairly terrifying – and the become whatever life form it is they’ve imprinted upon.  Once the pod completes its transformation, the original being mimicked disappears in a cloud of dust.  Poof!  Gone!

The new alien mimic is an exact replica of the victim in every way – physically (down to the last scar or mole), mentally (all memories completely intact), and socially (not just social conventions but speech patterns) – but not emotionally.  The aliens-as-us don’t have the emotional depth we do, and that’s what enables a few minor characters to identify them early in the story.  One such minor character, Becky’s cousin Wilma (a very 1955 name if ever there was one) says her Uncle Ira looks, talks, acts, everythings like Uncle Ira – but he isn’t Uncle Ira.  Becky is concerned for her cousin and comes to the good doctor to ask him to go meet Uncle Ira, who of course Miles has known since he was a child.

Miles can’t tell any difference in Uncle Ira, but his curiosity is piqued, and the story boosts from there.

Finney does a great job of portraying emotion between Miles and Becky, and their feelings for each other intensify through the story to their natural culmination.  Because we know how strongly they feel for each other, when they’re confronted by the townies that know they haven’t transformed – led by a colleague of Miles’ named Mannie, a psychiatrist to whom Miles sends the people who feel like their kin aren’t really their kin at the beginning of the story – we can easily see the benefits of being an emotional being and exactly why Miles and Becky resist their nigh-inevitable transformation.

It would have been easy just to go to sleep, after all, and let the change come, but when Miles discovers that the aliens have a limited life span and what they’ll really do to the Earth, he resists, fighting back and (of course) eventually winning.

This isn’t a horror story – I’d call it a thriller.  Maybe a slow-burn thriller.  Finney builds the story well, gradually increasing the tension, until the characters discover – together – what’s really going on.  The pace is excellent and the writing is engaging.  The story is a little predictable, and there’s some points where it’s clear that Miles, Becky, Jack and Theodora are overlooking some quite obvious clues, but in general, they solve the mystery at a good pace.

In that slow-burn vein, one of the best scenes in the book is when Miles and Becky watch – from the window of Miles’ office – the transformed townsfolk gather.  They pin on matching buttons so they can identify who’s been changed and systematically remove – gently, carefully – anybody not wearing the right button.  Then they lay out their plan to take the pods out of Santa Mira.  It’s at that point that Miles knows he has to do something, but he figures out – too late – that the last two pods they saw in the truck were for him and Becky.

Because this book came out in the first decade of the Cold War, there have always been folks who call it a warning about the evils of Communism.  I can see how they came to that conclusion, but I think it’s incorrect.  People have also said it was a warning about Communism’s American antithesis, McCarthyism, and I think that’s incorrect as well.  Maybe I think those portrayals are incorrect because neither Communism nor McCarthyism is a threat in 2015, 60 years after The Body Snatchers came out in book form.

When I read it, I see the theme of change – and not the priceless, beneficial changes we see our children go through.  The scary changes we see ourselves go through as we age. The flattening of life, the suppression of emotions, perhaps even dementia and Alzheimer’s.  The aliens are POD PEOPLE, after all, and alien pod people at that, and they don’t have those human dimensions like we do.  They are, in essence, a shell of what we are, and turning into that shell scares the shit out of us all.  Finney seems to be telling us that change is inevitable, but if you fight hard enough, that change doesn’t have to be uncontrollable and you can change for the better.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers features some violence (the main character assaults and overcomes a policeman) and some scary imagery (when our heroes find some of the “blanks” before they transform).  There is no cursing and a few mentions of sex, including one implied sex scene.  I wouldn’t hesitate to offer this book to a child as young as 10 years old, provided I thought they could handle the idea of space pods drifting to Earth and sitting in the basement, slowly turning into their parents and then replacing them while Mom and Dad sleep.

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