Songs of the Shattered World

My latest and last column is up at Innsmouth Free Press, a review of a chapbook of weird poetry.

Songs of the Shattered World

Innsmouth Free Press is winding down operations.

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Starlight

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.Starlight

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. Continue reading “Starlight”