The Big Idea: Timothy S. Johnston
Author Timothy S. Johnston has a thing for the “imposter” theme in science fiction, and yes, that pun was most definitely intended. Here he is to tell you why the theme intrigues him so, and how he uses it in his novel The Furnace.
TIMOTHY S. JOHNSTON:
In 1938 the Imposter theme made its first appearance in Science Fiction. The work was Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Other authors advanced the premise over the next several decades, increasing its popularity immeasurably. Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), along with Campbell’s novella, are the most well-known literary iterations of the theme. Since then it has appeared on both the silver and the small screen, in shows such as Star Trek (both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), The X-Files, and the short-lived Invasion just to name a few. There have been three movie versions of Campbell’s novella, one of Heinlein’s novel, and a whopping four big screen versions of Finney’s, the most recent being The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
I sometimes reflect on this theme, wondering why I was so driven to tell a story that embraced the idea that there could be intruders close to us masquerading as people we knew. I’ve read Finney’s book multiple times. I’ve watched every movie mentioned above. The 1978 take on Finney’s novel, starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, is one of my favorites. Even poorly made versions of the premise keep me riveted and wanting more.
But why is the theme so popular with fans of Science Fiction?
After the first film based on Finney’s story appeared in 1956, the most common reason postulated was that it was due to a fear of communism. It was the time of the Red Scare, after all, an intense panic over the growing power of the Soviet Union, the Cold War with the recent flare up in Korea, a looming World War III, and the period of McCarthyism from 1950 to 1956 and the associated investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in which thousands lost their jobs due to a real or perceived stigma associated with communism, and hundreds imprisoned as a result. It was a witch hunt. The film appeared at the culmination of this period in US post-World War II history and it resonated with people. The notion that your friend, your neighbor, or your spouse could be one of Them terrified Americans.
But was Finney’s book really about communism?
When asked about the connection, Jack Finney apparently denied it. There’s no question that this is why the movie and book intrigued people so back in the 50’s, but the premise has continued for many decades since, long after communism has dropped from most people’s radars.
My own foray into the theme is The Furnace, a murder mystery in space. A homicide hnvestigator is sent to a claustrophobic and remote station to solve a crime, and while there, stumbles onto something beyond his experience. I had entered the Imposter theme, without aliens I might add, and every day at my computer a chill traced along my spine. But I also felt Finney and Heinlein and Campbell over my shoulder while writing it. I played the movie The Thing (1982) countless times while working. I could hear whispers in the dark warning me that my family had been substituted, that my friends, although present physically, were now something else. Them. Not my friends. Not there to support and love me, but there to trick and deceive. To punish.
They drove me to write it.
But what had compelled me to dip my toes in this proverbial well that had been tapped hundreds of times before? And why do so many writers, filmmakers and producers choose to dabble in it?
I realize now why it echoes so strongly within us. And it’s simple. It’s about self-esteem. It’s about not knowing if those people who claim to love us really do. It’s about wondering what our friends are saying about us behind our backs, or about what our lovers are doing when we’re not around.
It’s an irrational fear, really, a worry that exists in the back of everyone’s mind, much like that fallacy of communists hiding around every corner back in the 1950’s, but it’s one that triggers something within us that has existed ever since grade school. It’s become something primal. We’ve all experienced it. Encounters with the schoolyard bully. Betrayals by supposed friends. Lovers who crush us unexpectedly. Things we hope will never again happen.
The Imposter theme is very important to me. I’ve even played the video game version of The Thing and loved every second of it. The paranoia and fear that our co-workers and friends are actually enemies in hiding scares the hell out of me. And it’s one whose foundation was laid while we were barely out of diapers. And for that reason, it brings us back to those days that we had been hoping were well behind us, but never will be.
I’ve got my tattered copy of Finney’s novel sitting before me now. I can’t wait to pick it up again and read about Dr. Miles Bennell and the mystery he stumbles upon after a routine medical appointment with a patient.
In the room next to my office, my wife is speaking on the phone with her mother.