Another interesting read from the S.F. Masterworks series by Gollancz, this book was first released in 1955, and as such anyone picking it up should expect a novel which contains social stereotypes from that period, which it does, but has the book dated badly? Is it now just too out of touch with modern sensibilities to be enjoyable?
The answer to both of these questions for me, is ‘No’.
But let’s get into the details, which will contain some mild spoilers.
So, the book was written as a contemporary novel in 1955, and opens with the lead protagonist, a local doctor, finishing his long work day in a sleepy little town somewhere in the back-country around California. Its a great introduction, which paints a chocolate-box picture of an America, that even at that time, was probably already beginning to fade from existence. This is a town where everyone knows one another, with white picket fences, sun-porches and classic cars, where doctors still did house-calls, and the sun never seems to stop shining.
But this is where Finney immediately adds some nice touches to prevent the story from being overly romanticized. He does this by making his lead protagonist, and another leading character, an old girlfriend, both divorcees. Something which they both feel, not as a social stigma, but rather as a form of personal failure.
This theme of divorce and personal failure isn’t just thrown into the story for the sake of it though, Finney adds it as an important factor or impediment to the development of the relationship between these two lead characters, something which sets up several important plot points later on. For the modern reader, these attitudes may also seem a little incomprehensible, but Finney also addresses this in a very satisfying way by the end of the novel.
With the scene set, the main story now begins to unfold, in the form of a stealthy replacement of the towns citizens by an alien life-form that takes the form of giant seed pods. These seed pods can somehow copy and then absorb the body and mind of living things the come into contact with, while that thing sleeps. This we learn later, isn’t just people, but also animals and other plants.
These copies are very good, but not quite perfect, and the story now follows the doctor and a handful of other characters, as they investigate and slowly discover the truth of what is happening to their friends, family and neighbors.
Now, as the story proper unfolds, and the characters begin to understand the full horror of their situation and what is happening, or has happened to their town, the story slows down, a few dead-ends and doubts are introduced, and for some readers the pace may seem to drop off a little too much, but the doldrums don’t last long, and before you know it the story is speeding to its climax, which includes a final confrontation and revealing conversation with the aliens, before everything is wound up neatly.
Without spoiling too much, I will add that this is a fundamentally optimistic story, and the ending, which is very much in the style of H.G. Wells ‘The War of the Worlds’ reflects this. This may be something that is again a little out of tune with the more skeptical sensibilities of our modern age, but for me, it actually served to confound my expectations in a positive way.
On the whole, this was a very enjoyable read, perhaps even more so because of the obvious differences between this, the original, and the subsequent re-imaginings that have been created in film.
Since finishing The Body Snatchers I’ve picked up the eBook version of another Ursula K LeGuin novel ‘The Dispossessed’, which is very different, but if I continue to enjoy it, will be my next review.
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