The last man on Earth, alone in a room
For a warm, Spring-like evening, the Beamers tackled a classic novel about a man spending his evenings alone, staving off a horde of the undead with Science!, in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Though Robert Neville might have thought his situation clearly defined, we had a few quibbles to bring up.
One of These Days, We’ll Get it Right
Matheson, a prolific contributor to sf/f magazines, movies, and TV series, was one of the most unrecognized authors of well-known works, such as his Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (the gremlin on the airplane wing). I Am Legend has four movie versions floating around, from Vincent Price’s The Last Man on Earth (1964) through Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man (1971) to Will Smith’s I Am Legend (2007). All of them have varying degrees of faithfulness to the novel. So, on one level, we were approaching a work we knew very well, while on another, we were meeting it, the original, for the first time.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?
One issue that struck us right away was to figure out, if I Am Legend is a classic, then what is it a classic of? The book is generally labeled as “science fiction”, and Matheson’s protagonist, Robert Neville, is studious in his approach to finding the causes and possible cures of the vampire plague that took everyone he knew. But, not every Beamer saw the clinical approach as being definite.
Eileen compared the book to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, where both were examples of style she termed “dystopian fiction”. In an sf work, she would need to suspend disbelief, aided by the author’s ability to navigate around dangerous patches of reality. In dystopian fiction, on the other hand, the author’s intent is more critical commentary than realistic reporting. She felt that places in I Am Legend that stretched credibility (and there were numerous rough patches, such as how Neville had access to frozen foods years after civilization had collapsed, as Donna noted) were places where she could simply discard disbelief. Robin was having none of it, though, as she could not find any aspects of the alien in the novel, leaving it too “Earthbound”.
Countering that approach, Liz noted that the biology of the book, putting aside the central premise of a vampirism bacterium (and some inaccuracy regarding bacteriophages), was very current even 60 years after its publication, like the image of the human/vampire body as a community of cells. So, the suspension of disbelief, as in much sf that relies on one main “What if?”, would only need to cover that underlying assumption of vampirism. A bit of a stretch, but one that Matheson tries mightily to make, as Neville spends considerable time in experimenting on vampires and the various traditional beliefs (Avoid garlic – true, Cannot cross running water – false, to the point that the vampires taunt Neville by jumping over his moat). Donna found that the novel picked up interest when Neville ceases to be trapped in hopelessness and starts to act against his doom, even if his efforts ultimately are not rewarded.
Horror Genre or Genre Horror?
The issue of horror and sf also had us wondering where to place the book. Merrie was struck by the psychological aspects of Neville’s situation, the horror of being alone, being the last human, denied even the simple companionship of a pet, as the one normal stray dog is infected and dies not long after Neville finally gains its trust. The elements of loneliness and paranoia in the book are features of the era in which it was written, we felt, though Alan had some trouble deciding if we were to read in a Cold War allegory or not, akin to Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, published the same year. I thought of Philip Dick, also a writer associated with southern California who dwelt on matters of existential dread and paranoia. Science fiction has a predilection for producing horror, I thought, since its adherence to rigorous working out of its central logic often pushes aside sentiment and softer emotions. Jon snorted at the idea that sf would be often rigorous or logical, though.
Of course, I also thought of Mickey Spillane and the hard-boiled detective stories that popped up in the 1950s. Mike Hammer would probably react much like Robert Neville, who gargles whisky and often resorts to gunfire, even though vampires are immune to bullets (thanks to their bacteria “gluing” up their tissues, a topic that triggered some observations on bacterial films in human organs from Nick).
Attention Must be Paid
Still, I Am Legend also shares with books of its era a shortness of length that lends it an ability to not overstay its welcome, though that brevity did apparently fool some Beamers who kept reading into the collected stories that followed in the current published version. And the seminal nature of the book gives it an authority that we call all respect, whether from within its own pages as a scientific horror story or from without in the numerous works that it inspired or influenced. Does the world need another zombie apocalypse? Well, we choose not to say. But, we could say that it does benefit from having at least this first night of the living dead.