The Body Snatchers is a 1955 science fiction novel by Jack Finney, that tells the tale of the quiet invasion of a small town in California by an alien race that perfectly mimics and replaces any human that they come in contact with. The novel follows the attempts of four characters, Miles, Becky, Jack, and Theodora, to find out what’s going on in order to resist it.
I hadn’t actually heard about this novel before it was put on the reading list of my university science fiction course. Under a minute into looking at its Wikipedia page let me know that I really should have heard of it: The Body Snatchers seems to have been an instant classic when it was released, it has been adapted successfully to the screen four times, and the author won a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1987.
But I am glad to have heard of the novel now, as the first thing that struck me about this novel was how suspenseful it was. Especially in the earlier parts of the novel, the pages simply didn’t turn fast enough to satisfy my curiosity to find out what happens next. The plot moves ahead at a very satisfying pace, and the atmosphere of sheer horror is so well crafted here that I don’t think that I have ever read its equal.
The second thing that struck me about this novel was a question about its genre classification. It was interesting to me to note that, though the novel is everywhere referred to as a science fiction novel (I even read the SF Masterworks version of the novel), the first three quarters of it could equally well have been the beginning of a fantasy novel. There is no mention of science at all, and the plot revolves around the question of whether something deeply unnatural is taking place, or whether the main characters are simply suffering from a mass delusion. That question is in fact precisely the definition of the fantastic as given by Tzvetan Todorov, one of the first theorists of the fantastic.
In the final quarter of the novel, when that question has been answered, the scientific explanation for the alien creatures is given, however, and rather extensively at that. It has left me wondering, though, about whether the difference between science fiction and fantasy is simply and only the presence, or lack thereof, of a scientific explanation for the supernatural events of the story?
One thing that the novel somewhat stumbles on is the romance between the two main leads of the story, Miles and Becky. I think Finney could have done a far better job at interspersing the horror plot and the romance elements in the novel. As it is, Miles’s romantic feelings towards Becky often come completely out of the blue, and sometimes feel outright inappropriate given the context of the situation. I think this is a shame, because I like the idea of including that romantic plot in general; it brings relief from the tension, and raises the stakes for the main character. I just hope that it would have been executed a bit better.
The final thing I have to talk about is the sexism present in the story. Though two of the four main characters present in the story are women, the novel makes it quite clear that the men are the active decision-makers who must protect the women, and the women are the passive supporters of the men who are there to be protected and loved by the men. These very strict gender stereotypes are most amusingly clear in the scene where the four of them are going to Miles’s house, and Miles comments that the women should be able to whip up some food for them. This despite the fact that neither woman has ever visited the house, nor know where any of the food supplies are.
I should admit, however, that the novel seems to be somewhat self-aware about this. In one of the final scenes, Becky comes up with a plan that utilizes the fact that women are seen to be passive creatures to her and Miles’s advantage. This plan works wonderfully, and it is a fantastic moment in the novel. However, one outstanding moment for Becky does not make up for the sexism of the rest of the novel. It almost makes it worse, because it points out that Finney was aware of the problem, yet still wrote the novel as he did.
So, The Body Snatchers is a fantastically readable classic of the genre, with some very glaring flaws. Those willing to look past those flaws will find a highly enjoyable book to add to their collection, but those flaws do prevent me from giving this book a general recommendation.