What is it about early postwar sci-fi that makes its worlds seem so dark and realistically shabby? Proximity to nuclear annihilation? The poorly forgotten horrors of World War Two? The rote mediocrity of peace after the time of global death and flame ended, the famished beginning of the age of mass consumption? Or is it only that we’ve been conditioned by the black-and-white movies of that time?
Whatever it is, Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND is shot through with it. This book is wonderfully dark. Neville drinks. He sweats and laughs and cooks and eats and cries and, in between bouts of near-insanity, he kills people. It seems as if killing is the most rational thing left to do. And Matheson puts the reader right there with him.I'm not able to offer an answer as to whether I am Legend is the best post-apocalyptic book ever written (I'm not nearly well read enough to even begin considering that question) but having read Richard Matheson's famous novel I can certainly understand why it's considered to be a contender for this accolade.
Although I've only read I am Legend once, and that being several years ago, so many of the novel's scenes have stuck in my mind and even now I can recall them with clarity.
What I love most about this book is the psychology of it all, the way Robert Neville goes from being the hunter during the day to being the hunted at night. The desolation and loneliness of the urban landscape is wonderfully portrayed by Matheson, yet the sheer isolation and claustrophobia that he imbues Neville's nights with is even more striking and shocking. Imagining Robert Neville - the last man on Earth - sitting in his living room, drinking liquor and listening to classical music as the hordes of vampires shriek out his name and throw themselves against his defenses, is just such a powerful image - it speaks of both hope and hopelessness, determination and despair.
Matheson's prose is also wonderfully blunt, yet evocative. The opening sentence is one of the best I've ever read:
On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.With that one line Matheson says so much: he reveals the significance of the sunset, the vulnerability of Neville in his inability to gauge it effectively, and of course the oppressive threat that he faces. One sentence, so much meaning. Brilliant.
I am Legend is available as part of the Gollancz Masterworks series, and if you've not read it - why not? - then you can pick it up for a fiver on Amazon.
Oh, and forget the recent film adaptation - it's total garbage and barely reflects the novel at all, let alone reflect its brilliance.