Tag Archives: survival

Book Review: I Am Legend

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. But he’s not alone.

An unstoppable plague has devastated the world’s population, killing millions and transforming the survivors into ravenous night-walkers, thirsty for blood. No one is left unscathed. No man, no woman, no child.

Except for Robert Neville.

Miraculously immune to the plague, Neville is a hunter-gatherer by day – stalking the undead as they sleep, and collecting any useful supplies he can get his hands on. By night, he barricades himself in his house, hoping for dawn. His chances of surviving this murderous new world grow smaller by the hour, and he knows it’s only a matter of time before they catch him. Or drive him insane. Whichever happens first.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is another book I became acquainted with via film. Francis Lawrence’s 2007 version (starring Will Smith) impressed me a great deal with its tautly-crafted story, complex themes, and profound biblical imagery. It also got a fair amount of flack from fans of the novel, who dismissed it as “yet another Hollywood adaption run amuck.”

I’ve experienced both now – the movie and the book. And though they differ from one another quite a bit, I can honestly say I have a deep appreciation for both. I appreciate the movie for its sophisticated rumination on grace, faith, and redemption. I appreciate the book for its intriguing scientific-backdrop, gripping psychological study, and for the clever (and grimly ironic) nature of its conclusion.

Matheson drops us straight into the heart of the story with one of the best opening lines I’ve had the pleasure of reading:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

The uncertainty of survival – and hints to the dreadful consequences of a single misstep on Neville’s part – are both ominously present in that sentence. And as we read on, we feel a perversely compelling certainty that this story can’t have a “happily ever after” sort of ending.

It doesn’t. I won’t spoil the finale for you; suffice it to say, it’s pretty bleak. Not hopeless per se, but not exactly hopeful, either. It does, however, prove fitting within the story’s (already bleak) context – and you’ll never look at the title the same way again.

As the tale progresses, Matheson – through the character of Neville – establishes a fairly plausible scientific explanation for the vampires’ existence. I thoroughly enjoyed that part, and if that sort of stuff interests you, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.

Most interesting (for me, at least) was “watching” Neville cope with his aloneness. For years, his thoughts have been his only company. No contact with another living being whatsoever. That, combined with the constant threat of violence and death, has begun to take its toll.

To further complicate matters, the vampires that hunt him aren’t just any vampires – they were once his friends and neighbors. And they still recognize him, even in their crazed, plague-ridden state. When darkness falls, they surround his house and call to him: “Come out, Neville! Come out!” Night after night after bloody night. That’ll mess with your head…

Neville’s cynicism and outright despair are not surprising, but I couldn’t help but wonder how a man with faith in God might respond differently under the same circumstances. Neville has nothing outside of himself to turn to, because he believes there isn’t any such thing. There’s just him. And the vampires. And the certainty of a dark and lonely end.

Yet what might a Christian say to this? Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: He shall preserve thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Do I recommend I Am Legend? Yes. It’s not particularly fun reading, but it is engaging and thought-provoking, and will give rise to plenty of interesting discussion. I should add that it’s not a book for younger readers: aside from the disturbing premise, it also has several scenes of violence, a smattering of language, and some sexual themes.

Book Review: Robopocalypse

In the near future, robots play a significant part in our everyday lives. They clean our kitchens. They drive our cars. They deliver our mail. They even fight our wars. On the whole, they have made our lives considerably easier.

But our heavy reliance on technology has its cost: at a precise moment, unbeknownst to mankind, all the dazzling machines that run our world will malfunction… and turn against us.

People should know that, at first, the enemy looked like everyday stuff: cars, buildings, phones. Then later, when they started designing themselves, Rob looked familiar but distorted, like people and animals from some other universe, built by some other god.

At first, only a few seemingly unrelated glitches are noticed by humans. Without warning, a domestic robot attacks two restaurant employees, killing one and severely injuring the other. A single mother is unsettled by the new and menacing intelligence of her young daughter’s “smart” doll.  An American soldier stationed in Afghanistan watches a pacification unit go haywire and turn a gun on innocent civilians. An underground “phreaker” living in London hacks into a hidden network – and finds himself facing a cold, cruel, and calculating entity unlike anything he’s faced before.

Yet none of these incidents can prepare humanity for what happens at Zero Hour: united by Archos – a sentient and incredibly powerful AI assuming the guise of a young boy – the machines become fearfully efficient killers, threatening mankind’s very existence.

The robot war has begun.

As one who is a self-avowed sci-fi buff, the premise of Daniel Wilson’s newly released novel Robopocalypse greatly appealed to me. I’m fascinated by stories that deal with  “technology gone awry”, and this one seemed quite promising.

Wilson, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a Ph.D. in robotics, does a fairly good job of spinning a believable yarn about man vs. machine. And although certain aspects of the story owe a debt to the Terminator franchise, Wilson’s contribution to the vast catalogue of robo-fiction is a surprisingly fresh one. His writing is crisp and compelling, and the plot itself is, for the most part, very well-concieved.

Unfortunately, these qualities alone do not a good book make.

For one thing, I was expecting a little more substance. The novel purports to be “thought-provoking”, reminiscent of greats like Michael Crichton and Robert Heinlein. In reality, it’s more like a frenetic action thriller with a sci-fi twist. I don’t necessarily have an issue with that; I just think the book claims to be something it isn’t.

Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot was thought-provoking; I didn’t agree with everything in it, but it still left me with something to chew on. Wilson touches upon some significant questions and ideas in the course of his story – but touch is about as deep as he goes. He seems more concerned with gunplay and flashy explosions. Robopocalypse may be imaginative and entertaining, but it’s not particularly thoughtful or stimulating to the brain cells.

Then there’s the lonely Japanese bachelor Mr. Takeo Nomura. This man lives with an android “love bot” named Mikiko, and it is implied that he has an emotional and physical relationship with her. Further, their bond is portrayed in a positive light, as something lovely and admirable. I was troubled by this. God intended human beings to share such love with other human beings, not with machines, no matter how “life-like” are. A relationship like that between Nomura and his android is neither lovely nor admirable: it is twisted, perverted, and far from God’s original design.

Another aspect of the book I did not appreciate was the bad language… and there’s plenty of it. Close to 200 profanities pepper the dialogue, many of them extremely harsh and crude. While I realize the situations in the story are intense, such flagrant and excessive vulgarity is unnecessary. I don’t need to hear your character spout four-letter words to understand he’s in danger.

In conclusion, Robopocalypse was a promising book that failed to deliver all the goods. I personally do not recommend it. There are simply too many better books out there to warrant messing around with this one.

Book Review: The Day of the Triffids

When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

It’s the perfect opening line for this book – ominous, cryptic, even slightly humorous (in a dark sort of way). Just the thing to draw the reader in. Because once you’re in, there’s no getting out. Your fate is sealed.  You will be hooked from start to finish as you explore a strange and unsettling new world.

Published in 1951, John Wyndham’s classic (but oft overlooked) sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids begins in London, detailing the events following a strange “comet shower” which leaves the majority of humanity stricken blind. Those few with sight must come to grips with this new way of life, as they struggle to survive and rebuild their shattered society.

But there’s more.

Enter the Triffids, a species of genetically altered plant. Their exact origin is a mystery, but people suspected they were the result of biological experi-
mentation in the USSR. They can walk around on their three “legs”. They seem to be able communicate with one another. And they eat flesh. Each one is armed with a poisonous whip-like sting that allows it to kill and
feed on the decomposing carcass of its prey.

Before the cataclysm, the Triffids were a nuisance. Now – with most of mankind rendered helpless – they pose a serious threat; not only to the sightless, but to the sighted as well.

The premise is a tad unorthodox, and to some it may even be laughable. But trust me, once you start reading, the story is anything but laughable. Wyndham infuses his work with well-crafted sense of tension and down-to-earth realism. He makes the implausible sound completely and utterly possible. And that is good sci-fi is all about.

The characters of the story come across as genuine human beings rather than cardboard cutouts, and they’re easy to sympathize with. The protagonist, William Masen, deftly summarizes their shock and dismay at this sudden calamity when he remarks,

Standing there, and at that time, my heart still resisted what my head was telling me. Still I had the feeling that it was all something too big, too unnatural really to happen. Yet I knew that it was by no means the first time that it had happened. The corpses of other great cities are lying buried in deserts and obliterated by the jungles of Asia. Some of them fell so long ago that even their names have gone with them. But to those who lived there their dissolution can have seemed no more probable or possible than the necrosis of a great modem city seemed to me…

It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here”- that one’s own little time and place is beyond cataclysms.

Confronted with the need to begin rebuilding society, London-based survivors band together for that very purpose. But when considering the question of how to go about it, there is sharp disagreement and a split develops. Interestingly enough, the reason is a purely ideological one.

One faction argues that “morality” is subject to the times; that “right and wrong” are relative to the sort of world in which one lives. They believe the survivors must adapt their sense of morality in the interest of self-preservation. For instance, if this means that the sacred institution of marriage must be laid aside, and fornication permitted in order to increase the number of pregnancies, so be it. Life must go on.

The other group rejects this humanistic approach, and counters it with an appeal to God’s law. They believe that right and wrong are not mere societal inventions to be altered as man sees fit, but rather objective, God-given values. Tampering with them will only lead to ruin.

None of this is to say that Wyndham is writing from a Christian worldview. Unable to reconcile their differences, the two opposing parties separate, and the author is largely silent on the issue of which worldview he considers correct. (It is interesting to note, however, that the protagonist adheres more to the latter stance than he does to the former, even if he is not a distinctly Christian character.)

The book draws to a close on a hopeful – if rather unsatisfactory – note. Apparently, Wyndham intended to write a follow-up but died before he could do so. Eager readers are left with a cliff-hanger finale. It nearly drove me crazy with frustration. Come to think of it, I may just have to write the sequel myself someday, so I can see how things turn out in the end.

As far as objectionable content goes, Triffids is fairly clean, though I would still only recommend for older readers. The themes dealt with are dark and mature. Mild language is scattered throughout, and there’s some violence, though nothing very graphic. One character is the author of a book with a somewhat questionable title. (Much to her chagrin and the reader’s amusement, she has a bit of trouble living down her subsequent reputation.)

All in all, I highly recommend Wyndham’s book as an intense, thoughtful, superbly written piece of science fiction. It’s worth reading, and if you’re an avid sci-fi buff like I am, you’ll probably wish to visit it more than once.

Book Review: We Die Alone

They say truth is stranger than fiction. I would tend to agree – especially in regards to the story of Jan Baalsrud, a story brilliantly recorded by David Howarth in We Die Alone.

In March of 1943, a skilled team of expatriate Norwegian commandos set sail from northern England. Their destination was Nazi-occupied Norway; their mission was to organize and supply the Norwegian resistance. Shortly after landfall, however, they were betrayed, resulting in an ambush by the Nazis that left only one of the team alive – Jan Baalsrud.

Pursued by Germans, suffering from severe frostbite, and blinded by the unrelenting snow and wind, Jan forced himself onward, leaving a trail of blood behind him as he went. He eventually found his way to a small arctic village, where he sought shelter, half-dead, delirious, and virtually a cripple. At great risk to themselves and their families, the villagers undertook to save him… and through impossible feats, they did.

David Howarth won my utmost respect with his marvelous book The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story. It blew me away completely. He blew me away a second time with We Die Alone, which has to be one of the most riveting survival stories I have ever read.

I mentioned that truth is stranger than fiction, particularly in the case of Jan’s story. Why? Because if Howarth’s book were a novel, I would probably shrug off the James Bond-like exploits of its hero as pure nonsense. But this is not a novel. It is a meticulously researched piece of history. Says Howarth in the preface,

I heard the bare bones of this story during the war, soon after it happened… All that I knew about it then was based on a report which was written in a Swedish hospital by a man called Jan Baalsrud… it was not until ten years later that I had a chance to talk it over with him, and persuade him to come with me to the far north of Norway where it happened, to try to find out the whole truth of it.

Now that I have found it and written it down, I am rather afraid of being accused of exaggeration. Parts of it are difficult to believe. But I have seen nearly all the places which are mentioned in this book, and met nearly all the people. Not one of the people knew the whole story, but each of them had a most vivid recollection of his own part in it. Each of their individual stories fit together, and also confirm what Baalsrud himself remembered. Some minor events are matters of deduction, but none of it is imaginary. Here and there I have altered a name or an unimportant detail to avoid offending people; but otherwise, I am convinced that this account is true.

By the end of the book, the reader is convinced, too, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And while one could argue that the book’s primary focus is Jan, Howarth never neglects the bravery of the villagers who aided him. To quote Steven Ambrose, who provides the introduction, “[They] ceaselessly risked their lives to save his, even when he was apparently a hopeless cripple with nothing whatsoever to offer anyone, and managed impossible-to-believe feats in keeping him alive.” Their boldness and sacrifice truly is one of the most touching elements of the story.

By all means, read this book. If you do not read another survival story this year, read this book. As a reviewer for the New York Times wrote, “We Die Alone fills one with humble admiration for the stubborn courage of a man who refused to die.”