I have ever been of the mind that zombies are produced through Voodoo. (Yeah, yeah, yeah…. I know, calling it “Voodoo” and not “Vodou” is culturally incorrect, but I don’t want to launch into that spiel when Sallie Ann Glassman does a better job of it than I.) Honestly, the notion that an undead creature should be created through science is anathema. The zombie virus, rage virus, unknown but definable “energy” from space, all of the little devices and explanations writers give to explain the risen dead do me little good. In most cases, I would prefer not knowing and leaving the agency of resurrection in the domain of black magic.
In I Am Legend, I found the genesis of the trope I have come to despise. Yet, oddly, here I found it in a palatable form. The novelty of the pathologically (or pathogenic) undead is evident and Richard Matheson has treated the subject with such care, such detail, that I realize now my earlier displeasure was erroneous. I should be yet more furious with this over-used trope because there’s clearly a way to do it well yet so few take the time.
Unlike most contemporary biological undead stories today, Matheson develops his protagonist (Robert Nevill) through the acquisition of scientific reasoning and analytic thinking. Robert Nevill’s personal narrative, like the narrative of history itself, can effectively be viewed through the lens of scientific achievement, though in Nevill’s case this is a personal journey, not the flowering of civilization.
It is that latter point, that science is associated so closely with civilization, that keeps this novel from degenerating into a compilation of the various plot holes and failings of contemporary sci-zom flicks and TV shows. Robert Nevill is a very human character, a man who has eked out a living in a world that has (from his perspective) quite literally gone to Hell. He isn’t just trying to survive, but is actively maintaining his humanity in its various forms. He has surrounded himself with art and literature, with music and technology in an effort to keep a semblance of the life he once knew.
More than a thief that wanders into vacant houses and stores to take what he needs, Robert Nevill is the ark of the human race, the last man alive in a world populated by vampires. Because of his circumstances, Robert Nevill becomes every man: philosopher, statesman, priest, and scientist. He is the curator of humanity’s legacy and so gives the book its title.
Nevill turns his humanity against the problem of seeming vampiric inhumanity. He obtains a working knowledge of microscopy, bacteriology, and chemistry from the abandoned libraries in Los Angeles. He grows in knowledge, determines the cause of the problem on his own, and then works to remedy the situation. This is what human beings do because this is what gives us our edge in the world. We don’t have natural armor, claws, or particularly sharp teeth, but we have an amazing ability to reason and Matheson draws that out in Nevill to create a very human protagonist.
Nevill’s attitude toward the vampires changes as his knowledge of them increases. When the spy, Ruth, confronts him in the end, Nevill has made peace with himself and the vampires around him, even though he must die. (“Why’d it get all Cicero up in here all of a sudden?” — Brutus) The assurance of the continuation of civilization, even if that civilization is of, by, and for the vampires, gives him some solace in the face of death. The affirmation of his growth as a person is reflected in his compassion for Ben Cortman when his long-time nemesis is killed by the agents of the new regime.
There are hints of C.S. Lewis here, specifically the book The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis argues that rational men must take great pains to avoid destroying the value of things that transcend reason. Nevill’s home, complete with its classical music and works of art, serve as a testimony to his multifaceted character. This isn’t just about science, or just about survival, or just about killing the vampires — this is about humanity and what it means to be human.
Now Matheson gets placed next to P.K. Dick on my shelf. As for the sci-zom trope, it still gets it with both barrels because I have witnessed it done right.