Author: Jack Finney
Type: Fiction, novel
Published: 1955 (original), 1978 (revised edition)
I read it: October 2015
“It’s like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” This phrase floated around pop culture enough that I was able to get a sense of its meaning, yet it essentially remained unmoored for me. I had a vague sense of what “pod people” were but really didn’t know whether this was a book, or movie, or radio play, or what. Turns out it’s a book, and also three (four?) movies.
A classic of small-town paranoia, the story features Miles, a divorced doctor whose patients and personal friends make strange claims that their loved ones aren’t who they think they are. His town seems to develop a “contagious neurosis” as more cases pop up. Miles gathers with people he trusts, including love interest Becky, to try to logically unravel the mystery.
“It isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think,” says one character, and much of the book is about the internal struggle to reckon with a new reality. A strange body in a basement that seems to mimic a human living in the same house is the piece of hard evidence that really sends things swirling. Miles and the others sway back and forth between emotionally believing the outrageous while intellectually denying it, or intellectually believing at least the possibility while emotionally being repulsed by the idea.
I had hoped that the story would evoke what it feels like to stand in an open doorway on a cool fall night, looking out at a peaceful street as evening sweeps in. It does do that, but there’s a more specific attraction to the story: the frantic what-if of imagining yourself as part of this small group uncovering something insane. Because of the nature of the threat (undefinable yet distressingly present) the authorities are not a valid option. Someone notes, “We musn’t make a mistake here. … If we guess wrong, something terrible is going to happen.” There is a crystal clear thrill to being at the nexus of something so huge, and the best parts of the book are about the protagonist having coffee in the middle of the night, or being unable to decide where to sleep, or constantly wondering if he should check on his gal (the women come off as too weepy, though this weakness flips on its head in an inspired plot point toward the end).
This is not your aliens with tasers story, with flashing spaceships descending from the heavens and people flooding the streets in terror. It’s simply a biological issue, a study in what happens when populations collide. The characters’ choices here are refreshingly realistic, with a minimum of heroics and a keen mix of existential survivalism. My favorite part is the opening paragraph, which outlines why it’s okay that stories about individuals come without the backdrop of an airtight mythology:
I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t, anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I’ve been right in the thick of it. Now if you don’t like that kind of story, I’m sorry, and you’d better not read it. All I can do is tell what I know.
Has any alien ever really known what made it invade a new place and subjugate others? Has any victim ever really been able, in the moment, to articulate the grand narrative of what is happening to them? The urge to expand, the instinct to resist, the drive to be alive…these are full enough dramas that have no extra time to spend on a “why.”