Stephen Leeds is a man of many personalities. Or it may be more accurate to say persons. See, his mind has a certain ability, borne of mental illness, though not one anyone can quite put their finger on: in order to help him learn, cope with the world, or deal with new an unexpected events, Stephen can create new people in his brain, which he dubs aspects. These aspects help Stephen learn and store new information, but more than that, they’re created to help him get through the world. There’s his psychiatrist, his security expert, his historian and guide, and so many more, designed for different jobs: his survivalist, his photography expert, his forensic analyst, and more.
In Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds there was a lot to enjoy, and there were some things that let me down. Let’s discuss.
What I Enjoyed
The Reality of His Aspects
In the final novella, Lies of the Beholder, Sanderson continues to explore all the intricate relationships from the previously published stories (Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, also collected here), as well as pushing on the true notions of what is actually happening with Stephen and his aspects. Sanderson sees value in constantly questioning the circumstances by which Stephen survives, and how those in his mind do, too. While this is set on our planet and reality, it’s fascinating to see Sanderson trying to make a magic system of sorts from mental illness. While there are some moments throughout the series in which Stephen’s disability is turned into a superpower, for the most part, Sanderson succeeds in avoiding “disability porn.” When Stephen needs to know something, he has to put in the work and research it; information isn’t conjured from thin air. When he needs to figure things out, his aspects have to talk with each other to problem-solve.
Living With A Mental Illness
Sanderson actually focuses on an interesting framework for living with a disability or a mental illness. Stephen has to live by self-imposed rules: he can’t acknowledge certain things about his aspects, like when they say they have families or want to go home. He also has a rule against forcing them to appear whenever he wants, because it would pull down the illusion that he’s creating reality as he goes. He avoids letting them simply take over his actions, but he treats them like individuals with wants and needs. It’s when these rules break down, when he tries to force his disability to work for him, that he begins to suffer from the effects of it. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism or a survival tool, but Stephen’s attempt at organizing the mental illness he’s suffering from could be seen as an allegory for how those who struggle with mental illness work to integrate it into their daily lives without it taking over entirely.
In Stories, They Live On
Spending the first two novellas exploring different noir and sci-fi inspired scenarios, Lies of the Beholder sees Stephen chasing a lead to find where his lover and mentor Sandra has gone. Along the way, his own mind begins to overrule his agreed upon reality, and the aspects begin to die, killed by a part of him that is becoming overwhelmed by maintaining the fantasy of it all. Ultimately, Stephen loses all his aspects save one which was able to record and remember those that came before, saving their voices before they were lost entirely. And in a poignant moment, Stephen begins to write, bringing the voices in his head back to life on the page, and preserving them. I thought this was a creative take on what was happening, and found it handled well, and even delicately. It spoke to the idea that no one is really gone, not even the people in our minds, and that if we work hard, we can tell their stories after they’ve gone.
What I Didn’t Enjoy
Reinforcing Myths on Creativity
While that ending is sweet, it felt like suddenly the story was making a larger commentary on the relationship between personal anguish and creativity, and ultimately, I found the ending of the book unsatisfying because of that. The first issue here, is the thread between Stephen’s mental illness and his sudden creative turn. While this character beat makes sense, for me it evoked the often-repeated but false myth that in order to be an artist or a creative, you have to suffer; that those with mental illness or those who have been hurt, or are in pain actually make better artists in the long run, because they’ve so much to draw on. I understand what Sanderson was trying to accomplish here in regards to making sure Stephen was honoring these aspects of himself, but I would have liked more elaboration and nuance to this turn of Stephen’s character so that it seemed less magical and more deliberate.
Stop Trying To “Fix,” Mental Illness
I also found the ending unsatisfying because mental illness isn’t something that can be solved. It doesn’t just go away, and it can’t always be channeled into something helpful or productive. The loss of Stephen’s aspects is devastating—and it should be—but having a night to himself, and suddenly deciding to write comes across as a restorative moment, a salve that writes over a lot of his mental illness and struggle. Sanderson doesn’t address his mental illness or the state of his mind after, but this move is treated almost like an answer, when really it is a whole new issue. We’re never really given a window into what Stephen is afflicted with, and so we can never really gain a grasp on what solutions may exist to help ease his mental illness, or help him live with it. The ending, while it made sense from a story perspective, felt rushed, and made me feel like the realities of Stephen’s new situation were being swept aside.
While I enjoyed this collection, and was happy to see Sanderson doing something new, and noir-y, I was ultimately a little let down on his examination of mental illness. It has all the signature action and mystery and snark you’d expect from a Sanderson story, but I just wish there had been a little more work done when it came to Stephen Leeds’s mental illness, even if I did find some of the ideas interesting.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.