More Bester while I’m off working on new stuff.
I’ve actually written about some of the radio adaptations of Bester’s work at Innsmouth Free Press.
Raw Feed (1990): Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, ed. Alfred Bester, 1976.
“5,271,009” — A delightful story. It is with this story that I first noticed the element of moral instruction that caps so many of Bester’s works. It is linked with the strong Freudian element in his works. His Freudian world view is that most of our individual and societal problems stem from the neuroses and compulsions we all have, the desire to escape reality. In Bester’s mind, we have to cast off these childish elements to achieve our potential. This is vividly illustrated, perhaps best of all the Bester stories I’ve read, in this humorous tale that mocks the childish cliches of sf as impractical and symbolic of childish wishes which keep us from psychologically maturing and realizing our worth. (Bester, in his intro notes, says this is also a satire on himself.) Jeffrey Halsyon, artist, who is unable to handle the burdens and responsibilites of his fame, has psychotically retreated into childhood, filled with lusts for sex, power, and revenge. Solon Aquilia is the mysterious demonic figure who admires Halyson’s work and wants to help. The story’s wit and humor is shown when Aquilia explores how being a warlock works in the modern age:
Witch’s Brew now complies with Pure Food and Drug Act. Familiars one hundred percent sterile. Sanitary brooms. Cellophane-wrapped curses. Father Satan in rubber gloves.
The many ways the title number shows up is clever since this is one of those stories wrote to serve a cover illustration — in this case a convict with that number — chained to an asteroid. The first sf cliche, or childhood fantasy Bester pillories is the last fertile man on Earth having to be father to a new race. The women all begin to look the same even though beautiful; they hate him, and his one true love vows to die than let her touch him. The second fantasy is the classic one of childhood martyrdom. Here Halyson, falsely accused and imprisoned, knows the secret to defeat an alien invasion (“Those adults will be sorry they did this!!”). The secret is ludricous: all the scientists and experts are impotent because they don’t realize their calculators are malfunctioning. Then everyone realizes at the same time the same secret. Aquilia shows up in the fantasy, as he does every one except the last one, to show the folly of this childish fantasy:
“You are all alike. You dream you are the one man with a secret, the one man with a wrong, the one man with an injustice, with a girl, without a girl, with or without anything. Goddamn. You bore me, you one-man dreamers. Get lost.”
The next cliche is the “if I only knew then what I know now” one; Halyson is ten years old again. But his fantasies of power and adulation aren’t realized. He can’t remember the exact dates and outcome of all those sports events and stock trades; his ideas are out of sync with the time; the bully still beats him up; and the restrictions of society on a child make life miserable. Aquilia shows up to say children and adults are”two different breeds of animal”. The fantasy is that the universe is all make-believe, in this case a bizarre send up of the graveyard scene in Hamlet by Shakespeare. Halyson’s last fantasy is being the last man on Earth with the last woman on earth, a beautiful woman with an IQ of 141. In one of the most funny moments in all of Bester’s writings. Halyson asks her if she knows anything about dentistry. She says
“I’m a beautiful woman with an I.Q. of 141 which is more important for the propagation of a brave new race of men to inherit the good green earth”… “Not with my teeth it isn’t,” Halyson howled … and blew his brains out.”
After the fantasies, Aquilia say to Halyson:
“Too many adults are still children. It is you, the artists, who must lead them out as I have led you. I purge you; now you purge them.”
It is an archetypal statement which illustrates the tone of moral instruction infusing much of Bester’s work and his creed and purpose as a writer. Halyson’s face has aged to coincide with his new maturity. Aquilia reveals himself as Satan, bedeviled by his own childish fantasies which led to his own downfall. The title number takes on one more meaning as Aquila says it is the approximate number of decisions a persons makes in a lifetime and that they’re all big. This is a story central to understanding Bester’s work.
“Ms. Found in a Champagne Bottle” — This is one of the earliest, that I know of, and wittiest example of the sub-genre of common machines taking over the world.
“Fondly Fahrenheit” — This is about the fourth or fifth time I’ve read this classic, remarkable sf story. Once again I was impressed by Bester’s inventiveness of concept and the skill with which he handled the confused transitions in narrator and pronoun references. And I was again impressed by Bester’s narrative drive. I found a remark by Bester in the notes after the story revealing. He said he got the idea for the story from a passage in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi in which a slaveholder had fled a state rather than give up his murdering slave — valuable property. This puts a whole new spin, for me, on the story. Bester put his moral instruction right at the beginning of this story and it is typically a call for maturity and responsibility: “You must own nothing but yourself. You must make your own life and die your own death … or else you will die another’s.”
“The Four-Hour Fugue” — I enjoyed the story on this, my second, reading, and I like it better than its expansion into the novel Golem 100. Bester shows his wit, particularly in witch doctor Salem Burne’s comparison of his trade and psychoanalysis, and a characteristic use of social history for his stories. Here is the use of perfume to cover up for bad hygiene just as in Elizabethean times. But the best thing about the story are the bizarre occupations (besides witch doctor Burne) like Blaise Skiaki, perfumer, and blind Gretchen Nunn, troubleshooter. They were unusual, exciting, and interesting.
“The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” — One of Bester’s most brilliant stories, a witty twist on the time-travel sub-genre of sf. It’s a tale of “chronocide” and also a twist on the mad scientist theme. Our hero could just kill his adulterous wife with a revolver, but he invents a time machine in 7½ minutes just to destroy her history.
“Disappearing Act” — I suspect that General Carpenter, master organizer of the war effort, charismatic public figure, caster of the struggle in idealogical terms, is a satire on General Douglas MacArthur. (This story was first published in 1953 which would put its composition during the Korean War.) Carpenter, in his struggle for “the Ideal of Civilization; for Culture, for Poetry … for our Dreams” ironically destroys his chance to get these things; when the secret of the disappearing patients retreating to private dreamlands is discovered, Carpenter realizes his war effort has eliminated anyone who could utilize the secret. This is a variation on “becoming what you fight/losing what you’re fighting for because of the fight” theme, certainly not a Bester original. The idea of people retreating from battle stress to a time of their own invention is typical of Bester’s emphasis on psychological matters.
“Hell Is Forever” — I didn’t particularly like this story. The moral of this tale is that we make our own hells as the characters of this story discover when they die. One character is given godhood (another Bester jab at an sf/personal fantasy) but disovers creation is a hard job and that he cannot overcome the corruption in himself. Another, in imagining a world where she murders her husband, finds in him the only qualities she has worth saving and is forced to spend eternity with a lover who is the manifestation of her faults. Christian Braugh, the only one who is appalled at the decadence of the group in the bunker (and who interestingly starts the rumor he is a plagiarist when, in fact, he is a writer) discovers, in the most terrifying and funny section of the tale, that the universe is run in every detail by a harried, dull, meandering Satan — who, in his own turn, is just a puppet on a string dancing to the will of unknown masters. The woman who accepts no one’s love is sacrificed as a consort to a horrible beast god. The last character condemns himself to an eternity as a “thousand tortured particles” — all sentient. The story’s moral was interesting, but I generally found the story’s execution too long and dull — with the exception of the Braugh subplot.
“Adam and No Eve” — This story is regarded as a classic in many sf circles, and I can intellectually see why, but I generally agree with Bester, in his intro notes, who calls it rather jejune. The story just didn’t really move me emotionally. Its origin as an answer to all those last-man-and-woman-repopulating-Earth stories of the 1930s is clear. The ending where it is revealed that this is Earth long ago was interesting but left me rather cold. It seemed too contrived. Perhaps the same story written differently would have been convincing. The bit with life possibly beginning on Earth from the corpse of a star traveller was the story’s best part. An anticipation of all those shaggy god stories and an answer to them.
“Time Is the Traitor” — This story has lots of nice elements. I liked John Strapp the man with the ability to make decisions with a capital D and his ruthless staff determined to cover up his compulsive murders and to keep him permanently psychotic because his talent (like so many of Bester’s characters) is linked to his sickness. I liked Frank Alceste, a man with a unique — and quite sellable– talent for making friends and his genuine friendship with Strapp. I liked Alceste’s attempts to help Strapp by having a replica of Sima Morgan, Strapp’s long dead love, made. The covert selfish attempts — including the wholesale destruction of a shuttle, a hotel, and a train — by Stapp’s staff remind one of the hidden struggles between Ben Reich and Lincoln Powell in Bester’s The Demolished Man. I liked Alceste fighting his attraction to Morgan. I liked Ernst Theodor Amadeus Goland explaining that his construct of Morgan would be 95% accurate but that it is a very rare person who knows more than 80% of another’s total characteristics… a wry Bester comment that is also thoughtprovoking. And I liked the story’s end where Morgan rejects Strapp. He is not the man he was, and she is not the woman he remembers. Nostalgia, Bester’s lesson here seems to say, is naive and unrealistic and neurotic: “’We only remember the past, we never know it when we meet it. The mind goes back, but time goes on, and farewells should be forever.’” Still, despite all this, the story didn’t move me on any emotional level beyond laughter at Strapp’s compulsion and abilities. A curious response to a story I think was intended to have a poignant ending.
“Oddy and Id” — I liked this simple, clever, witty, very Freudian story. Oddy Gaul is an intriguing character, a mutant who manipulates — unconsciously — the universe to achieve his unconscious ends. He can be morally educated to the highest extent — or, at least, his superego can — but the ravening, selfish beast of the id can’t be controlled and, ultimately, Oddy Gaul, like all of us (in Bester’s Freudian view), responds to his dark side no matter what his intentions are. An interesting “Monsters from the Id!” story.
“Hobson’s Choice” — This is one of Bester’s greatest stories, right up there with “Fondly Fahrenheit”. This time travel story exhibits the standard Bester traits: wit (in the dialect of the time travel), a moral lesson (that escape to another time would not be pleasant), and a jab at the common sf cliches of time travel. But this story is brilliant. We find out the strange bits of dialogue interspersed throughout the story are the babblings of beggars and bums, displaced “time-bums”. I loved the idea of psychotic seeming street bums being chrono-displaced time bums. This reaches it’s horrifying conclusion at the end when a displaced Japanese begs to be returned to 1945 Hiroshima rather than remain in whatever unspecified time he’s in. Bester totally demolishes the idea of time travel as a pleasant escape from reality, a neurotic idea that sf appeals to in the time travel story. Bester is not criticizing sf as neurotic literature, only that time travel is an escape that appeals to neurotics and is not thought through in all its details by many sf stories. In the future neurotics are sent in time to their desired “golden age” to see its not so golden. Bester cunningly points out the lapses of practicality and sense in most sf stories. Time travelers die of ancient diseases because modern vaccines don’t protect fully against ancient strains, are ignorant of future and past tongues. They can not profit from advanced knowledge because the profit from “technology without the faintest idea of how it works” and, even if they did, the supporting technologies would not exist in the past. They can not plagiarize great works of literature since, as Bester rightly points out, a great book must catch the public when its receptive to be profitable. Life outside of one’s own time would be frighteningly alien and difficult. Bester’s cleverest story touch is at the end when he doesn’t specify which time Addyer chooses to be exiled in: “Addyer traveled to the land of Our pet fantasy. He escaped into the refuge that is Our refuge, to the time of Our dreams; and in practically no time at all he realized that he had in truth departed from the only time for himself.” (Interestingly Bester, also, at story’s end, uses the phrase “time is the traitor” — title of another Bester story.)
“Star Light, Star Bright” — This is a somewhat interesting variation of the mutant child genius story. Here the child is unaware of his power: wishing. He simply wishes away his pursuers who seek him as a clue to his genius friends (This story, with its child’s letters, reminded me of Barry B. Longyear’s later “Collector’s Item”.). Bester doesn’t like some of the final paragraphs in this story — Boucher, when he accepted the story for Fantasy & Science Fiction, made Bester add them — but, though the image of people hobbling like puppets down an endless road could be trite — it works here and adds a note of horror. Bester, in his notes for the story, talks about the Search and Chase formulas which he has made extensive use of in his career. He also relates the importance of his research for comic book stories. The story’s con scheme is taken from such research.
“They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” — This humorous tale’s main charm is the banter between the two characters, the last people on Earth as far as we know. They never (at least — maybe — until story’s end) get around to what the last man and woman on Earth almost invariably do — sex. They seemingly come right up to the edge, verbally, of going to bed together, but then always wander off on their own bizarre tangents. The man is going south to locate a TV repairman. The woman is concerned with decorating her apartment and learning to play the piano. Both carry on as before the apocalypse — including worrying about their spending. Besides his constant verbal teasing, Bester has other hilarious bits. The man is a stupid son of a schoolteacher. He survives the apocalypse along with a tv station programmer who continues to run his station with the normal shows. The man gathers TV sets together and shoots them when a program comes on he doesn’t like. When he comnplains about the programming, the programmer says he has to have variety and that the man is truly a captive audience. So the man shoots the programmer. Of course, he could be lying. He and the woman are somewhat crazy. Another odd, funny bit, is when the two last denizens of Earth meet each other on the street and are content to just walk off. The story’s end, though, is weak. It’s not really clear if the two survivors have sex and the end. If they do, it seems to be out of desperation at their impending death — almost a convulsive act of procreation — a grim note to end a humourous story on. Maybe Bester is making some comment on two childish people becoming adult just before their death (Even the event of their death is not all that clear.). There are references to the discarding of the childish toys of toy yachts and dolls. I think Bester’s editor should have imposed one of those specific endings here that Bester chafed against.
“Of Time and Third Avenue” — I liked this story better upon the second reading. It’s a typical Bester story that combines a moral/psychological lesson — life is only worth living if you play the game fairly, earning your rewards without advance knowledge — and a satirical attack on the sf advance-knowledge-of-the-future theme. Here Bester cleverly shows all the knowledge a smart person could glean from an almanac from the future — and why they should refuse that knowledge. Bester, it also seems, extols the virtue of self-made success (such as his) covertly. The end gimmick of the story (Bester at the time of this writing was not successful enough to know Benjamin Franklin is on the $100 bill.), the signature of Oliver Wilson Knight on a $100 bill from 1980, is quite clever. It provides no knowledge of the future to Knight except the reassurance of his success. In its own way, it’s rather poignant.
“Isaac Asimov” — This is an example of the sort of interview piece Bester did for Holiday magazine (though this interview seems to be from Publisher’s Weekly). It’s short and concise yet provides a sense of the subject and his work. The interview (picked to show what Bester was doing between his virtual retirement from sf at the end of the 1950’s to his return in 1973 and because the subject is an sf figure) is not as illuminative of Asimov as the notes are of Bester. He explains his need for novelty and for different writing tasks. He had reached the point of boredom with sf after completing The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, and Holiday magazine gave him a new writing tasks (and editing) to master and constantly new subject matter.
“The Pi Man” — Another of Bester’s more memorable story’s. Bester, as he relates in his intro notes, is obsessed by patterns and rhythmns in his stories, and he uses the obsession here. The story’s premise is quite bizarre but simple — the title character is compelled, by a mysterious cosmic force, to balance the large and small patterns of the universe. How he does so is the delight and interest of the story. He does everything from speaking gibberish, shifting his posture to committing spontaneous acts of charity and cruelty (some of his ghastly acts are only hinted at). Bester wonderfully works out the details of the Pi Man’s possession. The story’s only flaw is again, a lack of specificness at the end. Does the Pi Man live with his new love and escape the drive of his balance-compulsion (and damn the cosmos for using him) or does he, as in the past, sacrifice his love on the altar of his obsession?
“Somebody Up There Likes Me” — This is a somewhat atypical Bester story. The wit is there in a story of a satellite gaining sentience by a freak circumstances, and that sentience decides to run the world along the lines of NASA’s accountability guidelines. The hard science tone, though, is unusual for Bester. Usually he is willing to sacrifice scientific accuracy and plausibility for story drama and is more interested in character. The technical details are garnered from time Bester spent at Cape Canaveral doing writing on the space program.
“My Affair With Science Fiction” — An informative autobiographical essay stating what Bester learned about writing by working for comic books, what his early exposure to sf was and what he found attractive in it, his recollections of other sf authors (including an eccentric John W. Campbell ranting about Dianetics), the writing of his The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, and why he left sf for the variety of Holiday editing and writing. Bester concludes with some remarks about his personality. He seems to have been a man genuinely interested in people, a man of protean learning who made himself through discipline and talent.