Monday, 15 June 2015

My Name is Legion

Roger Zelazny My Name is Legion (1976)
I don't really know much about Zelazny beyond his having co-wrote Deus Irae with Philip K. Dick, although I'm fairly sure I recall having read some interview in which Zelazny claimed to be no more than an organising influence on what was essentially Dick's novel, which squares with my recollection of it reading very much like undiluted Dick, so to speak; on the other hand, internet rummaging yields interviews in which Philip K. Dick downplays his own involvement to more or less a couple of chapters. Anyway, Deus Irae more closely resembles others by Philip K. Dick than My Name is Legion, so whatever.

My Name is Legion might be deemed a variation on John Brunner's Shockwave Rider in so much as it centres upon a man, specifically a freelance secret agent, who has pulled all his punch cards from those big old governmental computers with all of their flashing lights and reels of magnetic tape, and now has no official existence; and so he lives off the grid and tackles ecological crimes, broadly speaking. It's an odd book, tightly written and divided into three short stories. It's detective fiction which communicates in short, terse sentences which occasionally flower into lengthy, fairly intensive philosophical dialogues of a kind which you can see would have seemed a good fit for Dick's narrative. In fact, it reads sort of how A.E. van Vogt might read had his books been written by someone substantially less weird.

The only problem is that for most of its page count My Name is Legion feels like three short ecologically-themed stories connected by a gimmick, namely the private detective of no fixed identity. The point of the collection becomes clear at the close of the final chapter, but after a lot of time spent wondering, at least in my case, why it should really matter that this bloke exists outside of his own information-based society. The Shockwave Rider, for example, contrasts its own fugitive from official record with the expressly totalitarian world in which he lives, but the environment of My Name is Legion does not seem significantly worse than that of America in the seventies - room for improvement, but some way short of truly Orwellian; and while we're here, even the ecological aspect seems a little understated.

Ultimately it becomes clear that the book is about guilt, accountability, and humanity as it relates to its own conscience, and once everything comes together, it all makes sense in a fairly satisfying way, although it would have been nice to have some indication of where it was all heading a little earlier on. I probably wouldn't consider My Name is Legion a classic, but it has its moments, and the philosophical digressions are of sufficient quality as to suggest I should make the effort to keep an eye out for Zelazny's other books. This one feels like a respectable but otherwise lesser work of someone who was probably capable of better.

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