29 January 2007

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Alfred Bester

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, June 2006

Alfred Bester, 1953
Alfred Bester, 1953 The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester (Shasta, 250pp, hc) 1953. Cover by Martin Herbstman; (Vintage 0-679-76781-9, $12.00, 256pp, pb) 1996; (Gollancz 1-85798-822-1, £6.99, 256pp, pb) 1999.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (Signet, 235pp, pb) 1957. Cover by Richard Powers; (Vintage 0-679-76780-0, $12.95, 272pp, pb) 1996; (Gollancz 1-85798-814-0, £6.99, 272pp, pb) 1999.

A few pages into The Demolished Man (1953), Alfred Bester lays down one of his most cunning lures. Ben Reich is reading a letter, "centuries old," from his ancestor Geoffrey Reich:

The essence of murder never changes. In every era it remains the conflict of the killer against society with the victim as the prize. And the ABC of conflict with society remains constant. Be audacious, be brave, be confident, and you will not fail.

It's a message directed at the reader as much as at Ben Reich. If, Bester says, you're confused or troubled by the future society I'm about to describe, don't worry: you will be able to follow the thread of the murder and its consequences through the maze. In a book half a century old, by an author dead for nearly 20 years, these words are like a finger pointing at the contemporary reader: this means you.

It's a truism that nothing dates faster than yesterday's visions of tomorrow, and it's never been easier to test that truism than now. Trade publishers on both sides of the Atlantic have classic SF and fantasy reprint lines; midsize publishers like NESFA undertake ambitious projects like collecting Judith Merril's short SF, and print-on-demand technology enables enterprises like Wildside's reprinting of old Avram Davidson works. Moreover, crucially, these books stay in print. Bester's two most famous novels, for instance, are still available in the US and UK ten and seven years respectively after their current editions came out.

For a genre in a continuous state of argument with itself, this cuts two ways. On the one hand, it makes apparent what might be thought of as lineages of works: you can see that Counting Heads responds to Neuromancer responds to The Demolished Man; or that Accelerando revises Schismatrix revises The Stars My Destination. But because SF has an implicit goal of progressive achievement — of being more idea-dense, more character-driven, more thrilling than last year's model — the worry is that when you go back and re-read, say, Bester it will seem superseded. This is something more than the usual allowance you have to make when reading 50-year-old books and being obliged to grit your teeth at social attitudes that are no longer yours. A friend of mine, extremely well-read in SF of the last decade, recently went back and read Neuromancer: he said he had a sense of déjà vu, of already knowing its tricks from more recent books.

So for the reviewer, responding now to works like The Stars My Destination carries opposing temptations. The first is what might be called the temptation of consolation, of saying that books like this which formed the SF canon are still just as good as they always were. Nothing has changed over the last 50 years, in other words, and everything's as all right as ever it was. At the other pole is the temptation to be revisionist and to provide good copy by torching sacred cows. Any case is arguable, and one could construct an argument against the worth of any work of art. You have to do some allowing for difference in reading and judging any work that doesn't come from your own social and cultural context. But there seems no better place to start getting a sense of what SF's past means now than with Bester's two great novels, which are at the root of so many people's first experience of the genre.

Certainly, The Demolished Man banishes all thought that it might be an old novel with the sheer kinetic rush of its opening. (How can you not love a book where the first sentence in the body of the text is "Explosion!"?) It's so mercilessly efficient in getting down to business — introducing us to Ben Reich and his wish to murder his supposed rival Craye D'Courtney within a few pages — that you can barely breathe, let alone put the damn book down. Bester is dizzyingly profligate with ideas, throwing in every few pages a brilliant conceit like telepaths weaving a visual pattern out of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach". And unlike, say, van Vogt, Bester always binds these ideas to his plot. You never forget the drive behind them: in the first instance, that of Ben Reich to commit murder, in the second that of Lincoln Powell, Police Prefect, to catch him.

It's when Powell's introduced, though, that you suspect this might not be a perfect work. He's first described as "a slender man in his late thirties, tall, loose, slow-moving. His wide mouth seemed perpetually on the verge of laughter, but at the moment he wore an expression of sad disappointment." He's also intelligent, decent, persistent, endearingly shy, and the owner of "a small limestone maisonette on Hudson Ramp overlooking the North River." He's a bachelor Mary Sue, an impossibly good-hearted wish-fulfillment figure perpetually rebuffing the advances of the women who adore him. Moreover, he is right about Reich from the start, so that there's no distinction between the outcome he wants and the outcome the book wants. Once you start seeing Powell as cartoonish, you start to realize that the same is true of Reich. Bester wants him to be the solipsism of power incarnate: Reich is like an inflated, murderous Donald Trump who does all his own dirty work. Bester wants you to see Reich's power as unhealthy because it is unfettered by anything except the Man With No Face who haunts his dreams. But those with power are fettered just as much as those without, though in different ways — as any inhabitant of a gated community knows. The entire novel is gambled on the reader accepting a single big implausibility at the start, that when Reich makes his offer to D'Courtney of partnership and receives the reply WWHG, he does not go back to his codebook to check its meaning. D'Courtney has accepted, Reich (or rather, Reich's solipsism) assumes he has turned down the offer, and he has no one to check him.

So the long dance of the book begins, hampered only occasionally by the reductive psychoanalytic ideas which Bester seems to have at the root of his understanding of how the characters interact. He envisages his "Esper" telepaths working as analysts with a framework not very different from post-Freudian thought of the 1950s, using dream interpretation and free association as if no finer tools had developed in the intervening centuries. Even at the end, when Powell resorts to the Espers' ultimate weapon, a collective channeling of psychic energy to defeat Reich, Bester gives it a clumsy name from the Strachey translation of Freud: Cathexis. But the Mass Cathexis Measure does at least give Bester a magnificently appropriate climax for the book, as Reich is transported into a world where the solipsism of power is made real. Within a few pages, everything shimmers and fades except his raw self and that of the Man With No Face who is both himself and D'Courtney. The inner world, in such creatures, shapes the outer; and only in SF could Bester have dramatized that dynamic.

Revisiting The Demolished Man, it's striking what a political novel it is, and how much it can be read as being about class and wealth. Reich the hereditary aristocrat is brought down by Powell the middle-class working stiff. Money is presented as attractive, to be sure, and Bester delights in showing the reader the finer things in life. (He also manages an extraordinary urbanity about his show-and-tell, so that the reader feels hip by association listening to them: it might be called the Omniscient Manhattan tone of voice.) But money also produces hollowed-out lives — "rotten" is a word that crops up repeatedly to describe Reich and others — and in the end the hollowness collapses. The same is true, more famously, of The Stars My Destination (1956), which depicts the archetypal Common Man, Gully Foyle, taking on those with most power in his world and winning.

The first response to The Stars My Destination (also published as Tiger! Tiger!) is that it embodies an intensification of just about every strategy employed in The Demolished Man. Telepathy, the centrepiece of the first novel, is here only a tile in Bester's mosaic. Bester introduces jaunting, an even more radical transformer of society, and the plot ranges far more freely around the solar system. Bester avoids having a cartoonish central character by making Gully Foyle a blank slate at the start, animated only by his hatred of the ship Vorga which passes him by when he is marooned in space. It's not a novel about character, but it is centrally about the transformation of character. As Foyle bootstraps himself upwards, progressively augmenting himself in his search for vengeance, his speech transforms itself too. He starts off in a demotic register ("Vorga, I kill you filthy"), but by the midpoint of the novel is presenting himself, in his guise as Geoffrey Fourmyle, like this:

"Friends, Romans, Countrymen," Fourmyle began earnestly. "Lend me your ears. Shakespeare. 1564-1616. Damn!" Four white doves shook themselves out of Fourmyle's sleeves and fluttered away. "Friends, greetings, salutations, bonjour, bon ton, bon voyage, bon — What the hell?" Fourmyle's pockets caught fire and rocketed forth Roman Candles. He tried to put himself out. Streamers and confetti burst from him.

In an odd way, a passage like this feels like self-portraiture: Bester as the all-knowing sophisticate, perpetually thrilling to be around, perpetually putting on a show — again, like Manhattan. (It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that the climax of both these books takes place there: Powell captures Reich "far up the island in the gardens overlooking the old Haarlem Canal," while the explosive PyrE detonates Gully Foyle's story in St Patrick's Cathedral.)

With hindsight PyrE, the McGuffin driving The Stars My Destination, reads as a transparent allegory for nuclear weaponry. (When its effects are first described, they're said to be the release of "thermonuclear energy on the order of stellar Phoenix action.") It's thought of, by the men who created it, as a weapon so terrible that it can end the vicious war raging throughout the book; but it's by no means clear that it will do. The most likely outcome, the reader feels, is simply more destruction. Again, Bester's central tactic with PyrE is to describe it as mapping the inner world onto the outer: it is activated by "Will and Idea," by simply wanting to activate it. And so Foyle's solution to its danger, placing it in the hands of "the common man," is the ultimate radicalism. Foyle is not overstating when he says, "I've ended the last star-chamber conference in the world. I've blown the last secret wide open. No more secrets from now on.... No more telling the children what's best for them to know.... Let ‘em all grow up. It's about time."

So in both books, Bester presents the world as an entity shaped only when alpha males butt heads. Certainly, there isn't a very wide range of women characters in them, and those who are there are often just impossibly beautiful (but internally scarred) objects of desire. Jisabella McQueen, who befriends Foyle in the Gouffre Martel prison, is something of an exception — but she's the only one in these books. And for works which are ostensibly about saving the world for "the common man," there's very little sense of who that is and what he (or she) might want. Bester's story-making instincts, which are to provide the extraordinary at every turn, work against his larger purpose of arguing for the worth and potential of the ordinary life.

But, as a provider of the extraordinary at every turn, Bester is now seen as an influence on both the New Wave of the 1960s and the cyberpunks of the 1980s. The latter is perhaps easier to understand. The internationalism, the conscious hipness, the desire to provide "eyeball kicks," are as visible in Gibson or Sterling as in Bester. But Bester is a fairly "straight-ahead" writer, devoted like the cyberpunks to the clear narrative line through a work — the opposite of the modernist dislocations of, say, Moorcock's New Worlds. The typographic innovations Bester used to show the Espers' communications and Foyle's synaesthesia are thrilling in context but feel relatively mild now. That said, Michael Moorcock and others are on record about Bester's influence on their work: Charles Platt, in his superb obituary of Bester in Interzone 23, described him as "the man who persisted as the lone stylistic innovator of his time, without any support group to back him up." I'm not sure that's fair: Sturgeon was at least as much of a stylistic innovator as Bester, and Bester was hardly without acclaim in the 1940s or ‘50s. But there is nothing else like his work in the SF of its time, and you can see that the real lesson it gave to the generation that came after was that SF was a form in which anything was possible. More than anything, Bester's legacy to the field is his daring.

There are books you admire and books you love. Ulysses is easy to admire; Pride and Prejudice is easy to love. I think that when you love a book, it's almost always because of voice, because you want to know the person telling you the story. These two novels by Bester are both admired and loved in the SF field, I think rightly. Re-reading them as an adult is, inevitably, not the same as when you first encounter them (as almost everyone seems to have) at the age of 14. But Bester's ceaseless tug of story remains unstoppable, a force of nature; and unlike with many books, you can see that he had reasons to write these two. They weren't just stopping-posts or contractual obligations partway through a career. You sense, more than anything, how thrilling it would have been to know the man who wrote them at the time he wrote them. Streamers and confetti burst from him, still.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of the ten Locus reviewers. Every issue, we cover over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.

Locus Magazine Publisher & Editor-in-Chief Charles N. Brown made these remarks about Alfred Bester and about this first of Graham Sleight's "Yesterday's Tomorrows" columns in his editorial in the June 2006 issue.

Graham Sleight's new column, "Yesterday's Tomorrows", debuts in this issue. It's meant to examine the so-called classics from the perspective of someone who didn't read them 30 or more years ago. (The rest of us old farts read them on the original stone tablets.) Actually Graham, who is in his 30s, says the newer critics in their 20s consider him an old fart.

I didn't try to "correct" his reviews by giving them my historical perspective, but I can't resist putting some of it here. I read both The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination when they were serialized in the early '50s -– god, that's over 50 years ago! I loved The Demolished Man but was upset by Stars because I recognized the plot and many, many scenes from The Count of Monte Cristo (I probably wouldn't have loved The Demolished Man as much if I had read Crime and Punishment then). As a teenager, I didn't quite understand there was much more to books than plot. For those interested in trivia, Stars was originally announced in Galaxy as The Burning Spear and the British (the real first edition!) edition of the original magazine version was called Tiger! Tiger! (Bester loved poetry quotes). He didn't hang out around the conventions during the '50s but I managed to meet him a couple of times to get my books signed. He was a charming urbane New Yorker with a drop-dead gorgeous wife. I felt a bit at home with him because he used a lot of Yiddish phrases, just like my family. In the '70s, when he went back to writing, I got to spend some time with him (I knew his second wife from the old days in NY) and he was still great company, although the stories he told about the early days kept changing (and getting better!). The later novels had fireworks, but were mostly incoherent. I went back and read the early two. The Demolished Man was a bit creaky because of the 1950s attitudes of the characters. It seemed tied to the milieu. But The Stars My Destination seemed even better. But the best of the Bester are still the electric short stories. Grab a copy of Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (Vintage 1997) and prepare to be wonderfully shocked.

What do you think about these works by Alfred Bester? Submit your comments...


At Tuesday, January 30, 2007 4:30:00 AM, A.R.Yngve said...

Both novels by Bester remain, to this day, my all-time favorites.

Sure, some details have aged badly (computers, 1950-ish focus on psychoanalysis, subservient women), but the good parts still have jaw-dropping quality.

As these two books had such an impact on me, I often tried (and failed) to emulate Bester's style and verve in my early novels. I continue to hold them up as benchmarks for written SF:
That is how well you should strive to write.
That is how strongly you should engage the reader.
That is how daring, yet accessible you must try to be.
That is how much compassion you should have for your protagonists.
That is how much you need a sense of humor.
That is the level of vision you need.
In short, you must dare to best Bester. ;-)

At Tuesday, January 30, 2007 8:47:00 AM, Anonymous said...

"Tenser, said the tensor,
Tenser, said the tensor,
Tension, apprehension, and dissention have begun."
-- the mind-block jingle used by Ben Reich in The Demolished Man (by Alfred Bester) to screen his thoughts from telepathic police.

Alfred Bester -- he was a very happy man, with a fabulous day job which distracted him from writing more brilliant early novels. He turned into a very unhappy man by the time I met him. Datum: he left his estate to the barflies at his local bar, where
everybody knows your name. He came to hate publishers (who would not, for instance, publish his "Tender Loving Rape") and editors and fans. Very sad end to astonishingly talented man.

-- Jonathan Vos Post


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