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Finney, Jack

Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of US author Walter Braden Finney (1911-1995), whose career began when he was 35; he published his first work in the genre, "Such Interesting Neighbors" for Collier's Weekly, 6 January 1951. Although he is as well known for sf as for anything else, he did not specialize in the field, adapting his highly professional skills to mysteries and general fiction as well. Stories from his first years as a writer of sf can be found in The Third Level (coll 1957; vt The Clock of Time 1958) and later ones in I Love Galesburg in the Springtime: Fantasy and Time Stories (coll 1963) – both assembled as About Time: Twelve Stories (omni 1986) – and Forgotten News: The Crime of the Century and Other Lost Stories (coll 1983). Many are evocative tales of escape from an ugly present into a tranquil past, or into a Parallel World, or wistful variants of the theme when the escape fails; the potency of his most famous single tale, "The Third Level" (7 October 1950 Collier's Weekly) – with a third level of platforms (where it remains 1894) below Grand Central Station, itself an extraordinarily evocative real-life Portal to the heart of a fantasticated real New York – remains undiminished. The tale itself, surprisingly, is very short, its iconic central image having the viral effect of a profound aphorism. His best-known work is The Body Snatchers (10-24 December 1954 Collier's Weekly; 1955; vt Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1973; rev 1978), twice filmed as Invasion of the Body Snatchers: in 1956 by Don Siegel and in 1978 by Philip Kaufman; and later as The Invasion (2007) by Oliver Hirschbiegel. The book – perhaps less plausibly than the film versions – horrifyingly depicts the Invasion of a small California town by interstellar spores or pods (see Panspermia) that duplicate human beings, reducing them to dust in the process. The menacing spore-people who remain symbolize, it has been argued, the loss of freedom in a 1950s USA obsessed by the problems of "conformism".

Finney's further books were smoothly told, more involving, arguably less pertinently sf. The Woodrow Wilson Dime (30 January 1960 Saturday Evening Post as "The Other Wife"; vt "The Coin Collector" in I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, coll 1963; much exp 1968) is a Parallel-Worlds novel. Time and Again (1970) is a Time Travel tale that Equipoises sf and fantasy tropes in the story of Simon Morley's transit to the New York of 1882 on behalf of a 1970 government project whose goal is to change history in a way intended to benefit the military's sense of what would be the best twentieth-century history for America to have. Morley's growing abhorrence of the life of 1970, as contrasted to that of 1882, governs his actions: the novel is sf-like in its rendering of Morley's denunciatory sense of where our lives in 1970 were heading; it is fantasy-like in its approval of his subjective obliteration of the Century of Progress; and it movingly combines sf and fantasy in Morley and his lover's transit back to the present: having taken refuge in the not-yet-assembled hand of the Statue of Liberty, they awaken in 1970 to the sound of waves, nestled in the statue's saving grasp. To entirely different effect from that accomplished by a late twentieth-century author like W G Sebald (1944-2001), whose novels are visually similar to Finney's, the text is accompanied – indeed built around – a clever selection of period photographs. The sequel, From Time to Time (1995), in which the issue is whether or not to attempt to prevent World War One, repeats diminishingly many of the same effects: but the potency of Finney's shaming repudiation of our shared history retains much of its force. Marion's Wall (1973) movingly displaces the ghost of a 1926 film star into present-day Hollywood (see California). Generally, in a Finney story, sf devices open the door into new worlds in ways consistent with sf readings, but with a smoothness that makes the use of these devices almost invisible. The worlds thus made available are, perhaps, all the more engrossing. In 1987 he received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [JC]

see also: Timeslip; Urban Legend; Utopias.

Walter Braden Finney

born Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 2 October 1911

died Greenbrae, California: 14 November 1995



Time and Again

  • Time and Again (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970) [Time and Again: hb/Vincent Ceci]
  • From Time to Time (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) [Time and Again: hb/Honi Werner]

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