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.


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.

I think.

The Furnace: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Google Play

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12 Comments on “The Big Idea: Timothy S. Johnston”

  1. There’s a type of brain injury that removes the ability to believe that the person you see is really the person you know. The result is the same: the person insists that everyone else is a substitute.

  2. When I was a kid, I came home from school and my mom had cut her hair, was wearing a red-and-white striped shirt I’d never seen before. Her little makeover was very minor but I woke up that night in a cold sweat, sure she’d been replaced. At that time I hadn’t even seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

    I think you’re onto something, and it may also include fear of change and questioning our own identities, as well as those of the people around us.

    I’m a face painter and body artist. I’ve found that very small children can get really upset – even if they’re initially excited – if their entire face is covered with paint. Even if it’s only a a partial cover, sometimes they get very sober while they’re staring into the mirror. Usually telling them to make a face or stick out their tongue will break the spell. But early in my career, before I really understood how to guide them through the transformation, I had one 3-year-old freak out because he thought he’d turned into a tiger. Poor little fellow had to wash it off.

  3. P.S. Daniel Manus Pinkwater’s book “Lizard Music” gives an interesting take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s one of my favorite kids’ books (though I guess since the protagonist falls asleep and has hallucinations while working on a model airplane, technically that could be considered “young adult” :-D

  4. Fascinating history of the theme, Timothy. I’m always intrigued by how these elements of speculative fiction represent something primal and slippery that’s too hard to deal with directly. For some reason, I’ve never thought hard about this one before, but as Alana says above, I think you’re on to something. Thanks for sharing this, and congrats on your release!

  5. AJ, the books that hit us hardest — on an emotional level — are the most difficult ones to put down. The Imposter theme ties into our innermost fears, and that’s why it’s so scary to me. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Interesting supposition/explanation and it may well be part of the answer/fascination.

    On the other hand, there’s still something to say for the simplest answer of them all: fear of the other (as in: the unknown.)

    When magic ruled even more of our brains, we told stories of the faerie folks – and about changelings (which may be the oldest impostor stories?)
    Lots of these old stories have as underlying theme that we can’t trust our senses, can’t trust the world (and other people) to be like they seem to us.

    We began telling stories because we lacked explanations. That terrible sound is a thunder God. That baby of yours that died: some witch/demon stole its breath.
    When the world of your senses doesn’t make sense, doesn’t provide explanations, stories are born – stories of the other seem to fit in there perfectly well.

  7. What a coincidence! Just a few days before this appeared, I watched the recent prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like a lot of horror movies I’ve seen, it didn’t scare me too much, although there was invariably that one scene in it that gave me a serious case of the willies, and had me turning on far more lights than I really needed to afterwards!

    Like the author, I’m a sucker for any work of horror or science fiction that makes use of the impostor theme, even when the work in question turns out to be a bit of a dud (the movie Zombie High, anyone?). I’m a particular fan of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, having seen the original version some twenty years ago now, when my old university’s film society showed it one night. At the time, I was just starting to get over my childhood aversion to scary movies, and thought Invasion… would be a pretty safe film of that kind to watch. After all, how scary can a movie in which the monsters look just like us actually be? Really freaking scary as it turns out! Some time later, I’d watch the two versions that followed (I haven’t seen the most recent one yet – is it any good?), and found each of them equally chilling in its own way.

    Interesting to hear that the author’s a fan of the The Thing video game. I liked it a lot too, though, sadly, think it could’ve been a lot better than it was. For example, I was very disappointed by the way that most of the transformations of NPCs into the titular alien turned out to be scripted, which ended up removing much of the fear and paranoia that made my first playthrough of the game so much fun. Nothing like leaving your team for a while, and then going back to rejoin them, only to discover they’ve all turned into The Thing in your absence, or walking down a corridor with someone, only to hear him start making that noise, and going into weird convulsions. Hmm, think I ended up leaving lots of lights on then too! Funnily enough, one night I was playing it, my cat disappeared for an unusually long time: so long, in fact, that I began to worry something might have happened to her. To my relief, she eventually turned up again; when she did, however, I couldn’t help wondering: was it really her?

  8. “Author Timothy S. Johnston has a thing for the “imposter” theme in science fiction, and yes, that pun was most definitely intended.”

    OH! Took me 2.5 months but I finally got this.

  9. I’m catching up on old bookmarks and read this Big Idea post, was interested enough to read the sample, and BAM, I bought the book. I sense some late nights coming up….

  10. Yes, two late nights and I couldn’t stop reading…finally finished this morning. Great job, TSJ!

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