Survival and Cruelty
(WARNING: THIS POST IS FOR A CLASS ON HORROR FICTION. IT WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS ABOUT THE NOVELLA I AM LEGEND.)
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend reminds me of Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio.
In Bear’s novel, the world is in turmoil because of a genetic surprise that pushes humans to the next phase of evolution, ready or not. The reactions to this are catastrophic at times. Men kill their wives. Governments quarantine or even execute the “infected.” Confusion and misunderstanding reign while only a few comprehend what is really happening.
I Am Legend is not so much a story about science, genetics, or the CDC. It is a monster story with a twist. Robert Neville, struggling to survive in a world overrun by vampires, ultimately faces the realization that he is the lone vampire hunter – a terror to the monsters of his world – and he is essentially the thing that comes in the night (day). He is the legend.
It is a monster story. And, though not quite about evolution, it is also a story about survival and cruelty. 🙂
“Maybe the insects are… What’s the word? Mutating.”
“Oh, it means they’re… changing. Suddenly. Jumping over dozens of small evolutionary steps, maybe developing along lines they might not have followed at all if it weren’t for…”
“The bombings?” she said (Matheson, 44).
Ignoring the implication that Neville’s wife doesn’t know what the word “mutating” means, I noted this suggestion that wartime somehow escalated the destruction of mankind. It is not Matheson’s first description of cruelty in I Am Legend.
Why, then, this unkind prejudice, this thoughtless bias? Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out? Why do wish him destroyed? (Matheson, 21)
As the vampires in Matheson’s novella, the evolving people in Bear’s novel are also forced into hiding. Unchanging people fear them and hunt them down as if they were spreading a dangerous contagion around the world.
Usually he felt a twinge when he realized that, but for some affliction he didn’t understand, these people were the same as he (Matheson, 28).
Robert Neville becomes his own private CDC, studying the germ that causes vampirism and continuing to hate the culture of the infected and their people until the end. He engages in “thoughtless bias” by killing them, running tests on them, and assuming that they need to be cured.
Several times Neville wonders why he hasn’t given up yet. He could have walked outside to the begging vampires or killed himself in any number of ways, and yet he didn’t. Neville’s ability to adapt – even faced with the possibility that he may be the last uninfected human being alive – mirrors the ability of the vampires to adapt.
The monsters in I Am Legend are quite human. Between Neville and the vampires, the differences are so few that Ruth successfully masquerades as an uninfected person for some time in his home.
She has joined a society of other vampires who have learned to adapt to their new realities. And, just like Neville, her people have a sickening taste for cruelty.
“But… did you see their faces when they… they killed?” … “Joy,” he mumbled. “Pure joy.”
“Did you ever see your face,” she asked, “when you killed?” (Matheson, 156)
In addition to these two things that Neville and the vampires have in common – their ability to adapt and their cruelty – Neville shares one more bond with the vampires: both believe without question that they are more worthy of survival than the other.
Though Greg Bear’s novel is not a monster horror story, it is a story about adapting to changes in the world and the cruelty people can inflict upon others who instigate that change.
I saw the same themes in I Am Legend, a fantastic novella about the horrors of survival and cruelty.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: Tor, 2007.