Saturday, May 17, 2008

You're one of us now

A review of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney, read by Kristoffer Tabori

The image of Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers—mouth yawning open, eyes rolled back, finger stabbing at the screen—haunted me throughout my childhood. I stumbled onto the now iconic scene while watching television one day and it absolutely traumatized me. I found that alien shriek terrifying, and I still do.

It was with that chilling image gnawing at my mind that I began listening to the audiobook of 1955’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, upon which the Sutherland and as well as an earlier (1956) film are based. I found out early on that, while lacking the visceral fear of the 1978 film, the novel evokes a deeper sense of dread, and also packs some literary and historic heft, including a deft examination of the political landscape of 1950’s America.

While I went into Body Snatchers listening for pure story alone, its subtext was undeniable. Body Snatchers was written during the height of McCarthyism, and you don’t have to try to look for parallels—Body Snatchers is as much a reaction to the existential threat of Communist Russia as it is a book about battling alien invaders.

But Body Snatchers is no simple allegory of the Red Scare, either. Finney also provides a nostalgic snapshot of a simpler time, infusing the story with elements that are largely fond relics these days—soda jerks, doctors’ home visits, and shoe-shine men, for example. Finney sets the book in 1976, but perhaps he sensed that, even in the mid-50’s, those elements of small town America were already starting to fade away. You can’t help but feel a sense of sadness and loss amid the growing horror.

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s a tale about an alien race of seed pods who drift through space, seeking out planets whose life they imitate with perfect simulacrums while the host body is absorbed. The invasion begins in the small California town of Santa Mira.

The book opens with the narrator, Miles Bennel, living a quiet, uneventful life as a doctor in town. But soon a creeping, icy fear begins that builds deliciously over the course of the book, rising to near-panic when we learn the magnitude of the invasion. Remember that this is 1950’s style horror, so there’s no overt bloodshed or gore. But who needs splatterpunk when you’re confronted with an alien, parasitic race intent on consuming all life on the planet? Try to imagine the suffocating paranoia and slowly awakening terror of discovering that people all around you that you thought you new—teachers and sales clerks, husbands and wives—are being replaced by emotionless clones. And no one believes you.

Kristoffer Tabori reads the audio version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and does a wonderful job. He also shares in an interview on the final disc that his father, Don Siegel, directed the original 1957 film by the same name.

This is not a book without some flaws, however. One weakness is the spread of the aliens. At the risk of divulging a minor spoiler, the seed pods absorb their hosts’ bodies by growing in close proximity to their victims, typically in the basement of their homes. The process can take hours or days (how long is never revealed), but it begs the question: If Bennel and his friends managed to stumble upon a clone before it came fully to life, how come more Santa Mira residents didn’t do the same? Are we supposed to believe that every home has a convenient hiding hole in its basement capable of concealing three-foot long green vegetable pods? Also, the ending of the book was a bit of a let-down. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it felt a bit tacked-on and unsatisfying.

But, overall, Invasion the Body Snatchers is well-written and thought-provoking sci-fi/suspense, and a fine way to pass the time while commuting amidst the rest of the soulless conformists “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes” on their way to the office.

Edit: This review has also appeared on SFFaudio.com: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=2606

1 comment:

Maureen said...

If every home in Santa Mira had a coal cellar for the winter, then yes, every home would have a convenient basement hideyhole. :)