Saturday, February 25, 2012

Science Fiction Classic: "I Am Legend," by Matheson

Note: Not about the terrible Will Smith movie.

A few nights ago I stayed up all night re-reading a science fiction classic: "I Am Legend."  It's one of my favorite stories, and one I strongly identify with.

Like a lot of science fiction, it follows a simple plot.  Robert Neville is the last human being alive in a world filled with zombie-like vampires.  He has to defend against their daily attacks on his home, a scrappy survivalist using materials left behind after the doomsday* plague.

One of the things that really struck me about the book was Neville's gradual degeneration due to isolation.  At first he is beset with depression and alcoholism.  Later, he accepts his fate and becomes an antisocial wild man.

--- Warning: Spoilers after this point ---

It's a fairly simple novel in layout and writing.  But I think what really captured me was the ending and its meaning.

"I Am Legend" refers to Neville himself.  While most of humanity had transformed into mere mindless zombies, some of the vampires had retained their memories and ability to think and feel.  These less degenerate forms become the new normal and begin to set up a society all their own.

Neville is relentless in his pursuit of the vampires throughout the book.  He never stops to question whether some could think and feel somewhat like he can.  As a result, when the society becomes advanced enough to wage war on his fortress home, they capture him for execution.

In the vampire's prison he ponders this new reality and realizes that to the new normal he was the monster, a brutal pariah and freak.  He is the murderer, and, more than that, the last of his kind.

The last few lines of the book read:

"Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth.  He knew he did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was anathema and black terror to be destroyed.  

"Full circle, he thought... A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.  I am legend."

Sometimes I feel like that.  A few years ago I tried to start a blog on all the books I liked.  Nobody read it, not even people from my life who love me.

Sometimes I deeply empathize with Neville, or John from "Brave New World."  I feel like the last person on earth who really cares about things like beautiful books, philosophy, ideas...

What frustrates me is that people do claim to care about these things.  And even to have read them.  But when the time comes to actually discuss the book or idea it's just emptiness.

"A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever."  I'll never be a legend, a superstition, a terror.  But I do get the deep, profound feeling that I do not belong to "them."

*Note I say "doomsday," not "apocalypse" or "apocalyptic."  Apocalypse refers to a revelation, not necessarily the end of the world.  See "Apocalypse of Peter."

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