I found this book in the Sci-Fi section in The Book Grocer but I think describing it as Sci-Fi lessens the meaning of the story (not that Sci-Fi is a low brow genre), because although it’s about vampires, that’s not what the story is really about.
This book is ultimately a study in human isolation. It explores what happens when a person becomes the last person on Earth through a fairly generic protagonist, Robert Neville. There’s nothing that particularly stands out about Neville, he’s not smarter, stronger, or tougher than the average human. Using the ‘common man’ to drive the story has meant that readers really focus on the impact of loneliness rather than get distracted by the main character.
Furthermore, not much happens throughout the novel until possibly the last Act when everything goes from bad to shit-storm for Neville. Most of the events that happen to him are more what-if events such as:
- What are psychological and emotional changes does a person go through when they realise they are the last of their kind?
- How’s a person going to control their libido when there’s no one available?
- What happens when someone who’s lived in isolation doesn’t use their voice regularly?
- What happens when they’re exposed to another living creature (like a dog) and attempts to bond with them?
- What do they do with their free time?
- But most importantly, what happens when they finally do meet someone, in particular, of the opposite sex? Are they expected to continue the human race?
Another important message that Matheson wanted to convey is the concept of normality:
Normalcy was a majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just one man.
I don’t want to expand on this point any further for fear of spoiling the biggest plot twist I’ve ever seen so I’ll just leave this as it is. But this concept forms the crux of the entire plot; what we define as normal is really the construct of the majority and when we strip that away, we are required to re-evaluate our beliefs and how the morals that really govern our lives.
I also really enjoyed the scientific exploration of how vampires functioned. It’s explored so methodically and comprehensively but my favourite one has to be when Neville decides that most of the impact on vampires is driven by the Placebo Effect, that is, because everyone believes vampires to behave in a certain way, then they too need to behave like that. For example, Neville witnesses one of the infected trying to fly, in the belief that he would change into a bat. Another one that I thought was intensely clever was Neville challenging the notion that all vampires are afraid of the cross (what if they weren’t Christian?) and determining that it’s more the fear of the afterlife that drives it (his Jewish neighbour is frightened of the Star of David and a Torah).
It’s relatively short and anyone can get through this on a lazy Sunday afternoon. If you like Sci-Fi, this is a must-read, since it does what Sci-Fi is meant to do, challenge our perceptions and change how we see the world.