(1954 (1999 edition)) Richard Matheson, Millennium, £6.99, pbk, 160 pp, ISBN 1-85798-809-4
(1954 (2007 edition)) Richard Matheson, Gollancz, £6.99, pbk, 161 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8198-7
Once again, congratulations for Millennium's (part of Orion) SF Masterwork series reprinting of this gem of a classic in 2002 after nearly half a century. Double congratulations in that there is now also a 2007 edition from Gollancz, which is also part of Orion. This is (not surprisingly) tied in with the release of the Wil Smith starring film of the same title. I am Legend has been previously touted as the best vampire book since Dracula and I can assure you that such claims are not pure hype. Matheson gives vampires the hard SF cum new wave treatment.
The plot revolves around a lone survivor of an epidemic that has turned the World's population into vampires. Safely ensconced in his house-turned-fortress at night, Neville emerges during the day to scavenge supplies and hunt down vampires. At night they surround his house seeking a way in. How long can he survive?
Matheson has not only crafted a thoroughly gripping tale, he has sought to provide a science fictional rationale as to how the vampires came into being and for him being the sole survivor). This largely stands up even after half a century. You would need to have a present-day biology high school education to spot the flaws in the explanation (namely that bacteriophages are in fact protein coated viruses that attack bacteria and not just protein assemblages).
A short novel yes - so once again proving that size is not everything (publishers note) - Matheson's classic deserves shelf space on all serious SF enthusiasts shelves. Do not be put off by the fact that the Charlton Heston film The Omega Man was loosely based on this novel: while the film was so-so, this book is absolutely brilliant. Go on, treat yourself.
Supplementary information: Many may wonder how the 2007 Wil Smith film relates to the book? Well, as said the Matheson novella is an absolute SF gem. Conversely The Omega Man was really only an average film even if it did have its moments. The 2007 I am Legend film has been described by its makers as a homage to both Matheson's novella and The Omega Man. Many of the plot elements of the novella have been preserved. The action has been updated to the near future (clues as to the timing include the price of petrol marked on the garage forecourt and a (for now) fictional Batman Superman film poster). The settting also moves to New York. All these changes are perfectly acceptable. Controversy, as far as hardened devotees are concerned, comes with the ending. Without wishing to spoil either the book or the film for you all I can say is that the ending is fundemental to the novella's plot structure and its title. You may also care to know that the I am Legend film ending was re-shot (I understand following small focus group advance screenings) and you can make of that what you will. What is certain is that we have yet to have a vaguely faithul adaptation of Matheson's novel to the big screen: the novel is as different from the Wil Smith I Am Legend film as the Wil Smith I Am Legend film is different from The Omega Man!
Meanwhile if you are into boo-boos then look carefully in the far left side of the screen in the opening of The Omega Man. Is that a man walking (probably out for his early morning weekend paper) in the shadows? (You need the widescreen format DVD/video to see this.) Conversely the I am Legend film benefits from the wonders of early 21st century technology. Even though it was shot on cleared streets, the effects guys were able to digitally remove any stray signs of New York human life. This technique was also used on that other biohazard pandemic film of 2007 28 Weeks Later: both films are unlikely to win special effects prizes but they should. (Subsequent editorial note: they did not.)
The other thing is that Matheson was not the first to use the concept of a major global pandemic decimating a huge proportion of the population. Arguably one of the first to do so was Mary Shelley with the novel The Last Man in 1826. This too was the subject of a film in 2007. This last has a far lower budget than the Wil Smith film but is still worth checking out.
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