5 July 2010

Review: I am Legend

Posted by Ryan Anderson

No, not the Will Smith movie. The classic 1954 post-apocalyptic vampire/zombie novel that inspired the movie. I am Legend, by William Matheson, is a quick read and well worth it. It is intensely atmospheric, conjuring a very dark future in which the world’s population has succumbed to a disease that turns them into vampire-like monsters. The sole survivor is the main character, Robert Neville. Neville spends his days hunting down and killing the vampires and repairing his fortified home. At night he locks himself inside, drinking whiskey and listening to classical music while the vampires rage against his fortifications.

Note: minor spoilers below.

As the story progresses, the psychological toll on Neville grows and he almost despairs and gives himself up to the vampires. He eventually befriends a stray dog, and their brief companionship helps Neville snap out of his drunken depression. He decides to figure out what caused the vampirism, reading up on biology and setting up a laboratory in his house.

This novel may be the first one to attempt to explain vampirism scientifically. It does an admirable job with its technobabble, using a mix of bacterial infection and insanity to explain the various traits of a vampire.

I won’t give away the ending of the story, other than to say that Neville meets an apparently uninfected woman, and there follows a great series of scenes where Neville struggles with his intense distrust and his intense longing for a companion. The very end of the novel has a nice twist and the conclusion of the novel is very different, much darker, and far better than the one in the Will Smith movie.

This was generally a great book, especially for the atmospheric, dark vision of the future that it portrays. It definitely influenced the aesthetics of later post-apocalyptic worlds, such as the one portrayed in Fallout 3. The novel ages pretty well, although the mannerisms and speech of the main character are somewhat dated, and there are sexist undertones that are a sign of the times when it was written. My biggest complaint was the frequency with which Neville is shown spilling whiskey, smashing glasses against the wall, and just generally being drunk and despairing. I mean, I get it that he’s got issues, but some variety in how they manifested would have helped.

Despite those complaints, I highly recommend this novel. It’s a classic and when you read it you’ll see why.