Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Name Is Legion: Review

"He could be anyone he chose to be...wherever and whenever he wanted. Not a bad cover for a confidential agent on assignment."

My Name Is Legion
by Roger Zelazny is not really a novel. It is more properly a set of three inter-connected novellas of the future (from the perspective of 1976). In the first section, "The Eve of RUMOKO," we meet "Albert Schweitzer." A man who was originally part of the global computer effort to enter every piece of data about every single person in the world--theoretically, a useful thing, because if all your health records were available at any time to any doctor then the chances of saving your life go up, right? And if everybody's activities and income and all that can be tracked it would difficult for crime to exist, right? The more involved Schweitzer had gotten in the project, the more doubts he had about the truly humanitarian motives behind it and the more invasive and controlling he found it. And then he's offered the chance to opt out. Certain people have been given the chance to beat the system. And so he does. His previous identity is ended (we never find out that name) and the poor computer data specialist "dies" and so he begins his life outside the system. In order to make a living, he becomes a confidential agent, available to the second largest detective agency in the world and able (with his knowledge of the Central Data Bank--how to enter and erase data at will) to change identity whenever necessary. His first assignment in the book is to find out who's trying to sabotage the RUMOKO project--designed to create a new island and more space for the every-increasing human population--and stop them. But will stopping them really be as good an idea as it seems?

In the unpronounceable "Kjwalll'kje'koothai'lll'kje'k," our hero--now "James Madison"--is assigned to discover if dolphins really are to blame for the deaths of two men in an aquatic preserve/lab area. The media has hyped the deaths as "dolphins gone mad," but there are those who want the dolphins exonerated. Could somebody have deliberately agitated the normally peaceful dolphins to violence or has a human agent tried to cover their own murderous attacks by making the wounds look like those made by dolphin teeth? And if so, why?

And, finally in "
Home Is the Hangman," a semi- (and possibly fully) sentient deep space exploration robot comes home after having an apparent "nervous breakdown" and losing contact with its creators for a number of years. All the evidence seems to point to the "Hangman" device being on a mission to wipe out the four members of the team which designed it. "John Donne" is assigned to find out if the Hangman really did survive the crash landing, if it is responsible for the death of the first member of the team, and if the others know why it might be out for revenge. Donne finds that, as usual, everything is not necessarily what it seems.

At the heart of each of these stories are some very interesting questions about humankind, especially our behavior towards one another and to other intelligent species--from our fellow mammals to artificial intelligence of our own making. How much control should we have and how do we decide who holds it? Can we ever overcome the tendency to take the most benign control and somehow turn it to evil purposes? And can we appreciate and learn from intelligence different from our own without fearing it?

Even thirty-some years later, these novellas seem very relevant. We still don't really understand the intelligence of dolphins. We are living in a world where more and more data is collected about our lives and stored in that mysterious place called the internet. And as computers get more and more sophisticated, who can say whether we will, either inadvertently or purposefully, create intelligence along the way? My only misgivings with this read are two-fold. First, the characters are not quite as fully developed as has been usual in Zelazny's work--even his short stories. And, second, there is a somewhat disjointed feel to the work--in part due to the clear division of three novellas, but also because of some of the main character's introspective musings. These musings seemed to break into the flow of the narrative rather than helping it to move along. I'm not quite sure how Zelazny could have provided the details in a better manner--just that I wish he had. Three and half stars (would have been four, but for the misgivings).

**This counts for the Read Your Own Library Challenge--January edition. It's another book that I picked up during my science fiction binge days (teens-20s) and then never got 'round to it. I'm glad I finally did. I'm not sure what my February book will be...have to think on it.


Jim Black said...

Zelazny is one of my favorites. I always like to see other sites review his work. You did a nice job of pointing out the good and weaker parts of this collection.

"Home is the Hangman" was a favorite of mine when it was first published (in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact).

Unknown said...

I've never read any of Zelazny's books, but I think I'll try to find one now. Science fiction is always so much more interesting when it covers current or past issues rather than being just an exciting tale.