Stephen Leeds is the smartest man alive. At least, that’s how others see him. His apparent genius actually stems from dozens people he hallucinates, each of whom holds a portion of the knowledge that he can accumulate at an almost superhuman rate and he verbally interacts with to access.
Skin Deep is the second instalment in the Legion series, but enough backstory is provided that the original novella doesn’t need to be read to understand what’s going on. The first story wasn’t an origin as such, more an introduction, and Skin Deep launches you into Stephen’s overpopulated world just as directly as its predecessor does, gradually filling in the gaps to bring new readers up to speed while not feeling like repetition for those returning.
The first story involved a camera that could take pictures of the past, and this plot revolves around the hunt for another sci-fi Macguffin, the corpse of a scientist who had developed a process for using human bodies as living computers by saving data within strands of DNA. This leads to a few metaphysical dissections of what is and is not realistically possible, one of which ends with a glorious proposition that over an infinite length of time where infinite probabilities play out, every person who has ever lived will, an infinite number of times, become Batman.
Once again, the search is a secondary consideration to the developing relationships between Stephen and his hallucinations (“aspects”). Although they only exist in Stephen’s mind, his unique psychosis requires them to be treated as if they are really there, his subconscious providing any visual edits required to maintain the illusion of them interacting with the physical world, while at the same time aware that what he is seeing is not actually happening. Although they are effectively manifestations of his compartmentalised knowledge (and, to varying degrees, aware and accepting of this) each is a distinct person in their own right with their own quirks and personalities and, it turns out, psychological issues. Like the distinctive systems of magic Sanderson creates for his Cosmere fantasy sagas, the information that they provide is done so with rules and limitations, and we are given a rather intense example of how Stephen reacts when isolated from them.
A professional voice actor, narrator Oliver Wyman provides a vast array of distinctive voices for all characters involved, quite a feat given not only not the number of them but also for their wide international, ethnic and gender variety. Although quite a short book, Skin Deep is still over twice the length of the original tale, and with unanswered questions lingering and Stephen’s mind slowly reaching saturation point, there’s potential for the series to develop into greater character study and more complex mysteries.
LEGION: SKIN DEEP / AUTHOR: BRANDON SANDERSON / NARRATOR: OLIVER WYMAN / PUBLISHER: ORION / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW