Saturday, 26 April 2014

I review "I am Legend" 1954 Sci-fi classic by Richard Matheson

I find myself strangely bookend-ed. 
My last book began with a forward by Stephen King and this one ended with an afterword by Stephen King. 
My holiday month began with an apocalyptic book about a parasitic plague like pathogen forming a symbiosis and a new form of life on Earth (The Girl with all the Gifts by Michael Carey) and ended with this book with such striking parallels that one felt the one book must have influenced the other, though I have read them in reverse chronological order. 

My path first crossed this story in 1971 when, for reasons best known to herself, my mother took me her then 8 year old son to see "The Omega Man" a cinema adaption of Richard Matheson's book and starring Charlton Heston as the last man alive. It is one of only three films I remember from my childhood, the scary people with the white eyes and the back crosses for pupils haunted my nightmares for years. I didn't understand it, but it still terrified me. Memories of that bleak film put me off seeing the more recent Will Smith vehicle from the same source material.

The fact that I remember little of the plot of the film is probably no bad thing, as the few bits I can recall show the film sharply diverging from the book.

The book itself, bought and read in a day, is a compact but efficient story which sets a high bar for every apocalyptic nightmare vision that follows it. Here we see the dead rising, call them zombies call them vampires, they are still the scary risen dead, they are still infected and it is an infection that none can escape - save our hero Robert Neville.

We meet him combatting the boredom, the guilt and the constant danger of a life where every other living (and I use the word advisedly) creature wants him dead. A life where he must live in a self constructed prison, foraging for survival by day, hiding behind walls and music and drink by night. The story unfolds in a series of snapshots spread over three years from 1978 to 1979, which at the time of writing (1954) must have seemed magically modern and far away. Those of us looking back with hindsight on that decade of beige and flares might think Robert Neville's alternative a better one to have lived through.

The book tests and probes one man's response to this awful situation, the moments of purpose, flashes of motivation, for example his pursuit of a chance of a pet as companion, interspersed with despair. The desperation not unlike Tom Hanks in Castaway bemoaning the lost ball with a painted face that had been his only excuse for conversation.

The parallels with "The Girl with all the gifts" come in two ways. There is the scientific investigation into the cause of the disease. Both books feature a scientific mind experimenting in a bid to understand and to cure the fate that has befallen humanity - the loving detail in the description of the microscope technology of the respective times I found particularly resonant.

But in both books science does not lead to a cure, rather than a discovery of a symbiosis of parasite and victim that hints at a new way forward. But it is a new order in which the existing human species are not just redundant, or obsolete, but facing extinction. It is in how their respective protaganists respond to this situation that both books leave us a germ of hope. 

Don't get me wrong, these are very different books in so many ways. I rate Carey's book higher as it has had the chance (and taken it) to deepen and extend the kind of premise (revolutionary for his time) of Matheson's book. But I felt as though I were reading two different designers responses to the same basic brief. 

And, having seen the film at 8 and read the book four decades later, I can definitely and belatedly say - as we have all always known - the book is better. 

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