Tuesday, September 25, 2007

And Then I Read: Matheson and Finney 

Having read Matheson's I Am Legend, as discussed previous post, and fond of patterns and linkages and serendipidous discoveries of which book I *could* read next (especially, it seems, when it confounds thought-out plans of what I *should* be reading), and perhaps also in reaction to the rather challenging effort of reading (for review in Locus Magazine) the VanderMeer/VanderMeer-edited Best American Fantasy anthology the past couple weeks, I discovered additional 1950s novels that inspired classics films and which I had never read and which I had copies of on my shelves... (Reader, always assure your nonreading friends that you will get around to reading all your books someday). And so I then read Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- which I'd never read despite having seen three of the four film adaptations -- and then back to Matheson for The Incredible Shrinking Man. (Confounding the pattern in one dimension if not another, I also read the book version of David Gerrold's The Martian Child, since that too is the basis for an upcoming film this fall.)

Quick reactions: I couldn't help but notice similarities between Matheson's protagonists. Both highly emotional, given to rages of frustration and self-deprecation, both frank (if not explicit, given the times) in acknowledging their frustrated needs for female companionship (the theme is expressed passingly in The Omega Man). Especially with Shrinking Man -- the character's emotionality is just another way in which I can only imagine Isaac Asimov, if he read the book, must have rolled his eyes; the scientific plausibility, and the main character's emotional response, are both light years away from the Asimov approach.

And so then... I discovered I had this pint-sized paperback edition of an early Finney collection, The Third Level, on my shelves. (Reader...) And so I'm now about half way through that. The surprising recurrent theme here is -- the longing for the simpler past. Expressed in stories written in the early '50s, for the era of 1894! Some things, perhaps, never change.
Thanks for your interesting observations. Your point re Asimov is well-taken. The relative absence of emotionality in his work is one of his greatest weaknesses as a writer. Younger readers, his principal fan base, naturally care little about such things. They respond mainly to his ideas and wide-ranging canvas. But older folks require some recognition of the human element, which Asimov provided only sparingly. I think this is one reason a lot of us have found his work less satisfying with the passage of time.
Finney, of course, was a very different sort of writer. His characters are quite recognizably human, behaving very much like us or people we know. He was particularly good at portraying this at shorter lengths, as I'm sure you realize by now in your reading of "The Third Level." He had some trouble sustaining similarly good characterization and thematic elements at novel length. In fact, the movie version of "Body Snatchers" is better at this than the book. A couple of exceptions are the novels "Marion's Wall" and "The Woodrow Wilson Dime." They are consistently interesting and entertaining in much the same way as his short stories, and are very much worth seeking out.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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