“Legion” by Brandon Sanderson

Title: Legion
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Read Date: 9 October 2012
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads Status Updates: click!

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems…for a price.

His brain is getting a little crowded, however, and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

“My name is Stephen Leeds, and I am perfectly sane. My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad.” That’s got to be the best opening line I’ve read in a while. It immediately made me laugh and set the tone of “Legion” perfectly.

Brandon Sanderson has another winner here, at least in terms of concept. The idea of a genius who copes with his abilities by creating hallucinatory people and having that same genius (and his hallucinations) be a kind of consulting detective ala Sherlock Holmes is just…well, genius. It’s rife with potential for so many interesting story lines.

So I was rather surprised that Sanderson chose the camera that can take pictures of the past as his MacGuffin for this story. It is intriguing and just as rife with potential as Leeds, but it’s difficult to get invested in something that I don’t fully understand. One of the draws of Sanderson’s epic fantasies for me is how much detail goes into the conceptualization of his magic systems. I like knowing how the magic works and seeing it at work, but by the end of the novella, we are back to square one with that camera. I understand that within the context of the novella, it’s difficult to explain the camera away considering the person who invented it is a theoretical physicist, and we would probably end up with a Michael Crichton-esque scientific exposition or something. But we didn’t get much of an explanation at all here, so I was left with more questions that not even Leeds and his hallucinations could answer.

Just as surprising to me is the choice of the secondary MacGuffin: photographic proof that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. But then I suppose if I had an unstable piece of equipment and I may have just a few chances of getting that camera to work, I would’ve gone for taking a picture of something as important and life-changing as the Resurrection as well.

Let’s go back to the camera’s inventor, Balubal Razon, because he’s significant to me more than anything else in this story. He’s “ethnically Filipino but second-generation American,” and he is intent on using science to prove his faith.

To be both a scientist and religious is to create an uneasy truce within a man. At the heart of science is accepting only that truth which can be proven. At the heart of faith is to define Truth, at its core, as being unprovable. Razon is a brave man because of what he is doing. Regardless of his discovery, one of two things he holds very dear will be upended.

I have no problems with how Razon is portrayed here, but I feel like he was written as ethnically Filipino so that the choice of villains can be justified. And who are the villains? Why, the Abu Sayyaf, of course–an Islamic separatist group based in the Southern Philippines, who has been responsible for what have been deemed as terrorist activities.

While in theory, a group like the AS could take advantage of the opportunity to disprove Christianity, in reality, their main goal is less grand than that. They are primarily concerned with the establishment of an autonomous Islamic region in the Philippines, and their resources and operations have always been geared towards that goal. Considering their circumstances, I find it a little hard to believe that they will pounce on something like this.

It is such a challenge to invoke suspension of disbelief when fiction strays a little too close to one’s reality because you can always find the smallest details to nitpick–like Salic speaking in Tagalog when I know it’s more likely he’s speaking one of the Mindanaon dialects.

SIDE NOTE: This aspect of the story is relevant now more than ever, by the way, because the Philippine government and the MILF just signed a framework agreement for the establishment of a Bangsamoro autonomous entity.

I would really like to know what kind of thought process led Sanderson to this story line and why he chose the Muslim Extremists Out to Disprove Christianity route. I know that Sanderson is a religious person, but this is the first time a real-world religion has been at the forefront of one his stories, and I personally find it disappointing that he chose to highlight the antagonism. I’ve come to expect the unconventional from him, so I know that he is capable of thinking of something even more creative than the terrorist peg to give Razon some motivation and the story more of a thriller vibe. Og Mandino chose the safer route when he tackled the reality of the Resurrection in “The Christ Commission,” and that turned out to be an interesting approach, too. This is only my personal preference, though. To be fair, it does not take away from the story all that much.

When taken separately, the concepts of Leeds’ Legion and the camera are actually pretty awesome, but I didn’t like how they were used together here. I know from reading Sanderson’s novel annotations that he likes cannibalizing ideas from unfinished stories. When he did this in his other novels like “Mistborn”, it was never obvious, but this time, it feels like that’s indeed what he did–that Leeds and the camera were from two different stories. At least that’s how it came across to me.

Despite my misgivings about this particular story, I’d like to see Leeds and his legion take on other cases. I had fun with that aspect of the story so much, especially when the hallucinations started to have hallucinations. It’s just my kind of crazy.

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