Alfred Bester: a Driver of Tigers

I first read Alfred Bester in the early Seventies, as part of that first flush of discovering serious Science Fiction and Fantasy and wanting to absorb as much of it as I could that followed my first reading of The Lord of the Rings. This meant that my first full-length exposure to Bester was his 1975 novel, Extro, which had been published in America as The Computer Connection.
I loved it instantly, for its vigour, its pace and the whirligig of ideas that seemed to fly off every page. It’s still my favourite among his books, though everybody else condemned it as a cheerless and clumsy echo of his work of twenty years earlier, when he wrote the two novels that made him a star of SF, and one of its most influential practitioners. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (which, in an inversion of Extro, was published in Britain under Bester’s chosen title, Tiger! Tiger!) together with the explosive short stories he wrote in that decade are the works for which he will be remembered, and the books for which he was, posthumously, named the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Ninth Grand Master.
Bester’s career in SF was strangely fragmentary, dipping into and out of the field with long gaps during which his writing energies were directed elsewhere. He began appearing in print in 1939, and found a niche at the classic magazine, Astounding, under its legendary editor, John W. Campbell, but drifted away in 1942 to write comics for National/DC. His hand has not been identified in writing any specific story, but he is credited with writing the classic “In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night…” oath, later adopted in the Silver Age by the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, as well as creating Vandal Savage, a villain who has only gotten more prominent down the decades.
The influence of his actress wife, Rolly, drew Bester into radio scripting and later on, television scripting.
Bester first came back to SF in 1950, to begin his classic period. He returned to Astounding but only for a few months, breaking away from Campbell after the latter adopted Dianetics, the forerunner of Scientology. Instead, Bester struck up a solid relationship with Horace Gold, at Galaxy, which would be his main home for the rest of the decade.
These were the years of his two great novels (divided by a non-SF novel set in the world of television, behind the scenes, which had all the energy and drama and obsessives, but which was overlooked by the mainstream). The second of these was mainly written in England and Rome, the Besters having travelled to Europe on the proceeds of a film option for that non-SF novel, but it was also the catalyst for Bester’s second withdrawal. Having sold a number of non-fiction pieces about Europe to the prestigious Holiday magazine, Bester started getting commissions that reduced his SF output until, by 1959, he had ceased publishing.
A second spell in television was followed by a handful of SF stories in the early Sixties, then Bester was gone again, appointed Senior Editor at Holiday until the magazine folded in 1971. Bester returned to the field again in 1972, writing a further three novels, despite beginning to suffer from eyesight problems. None of his work at this time achieved either critical or commercial success, and whilst I still cherish Extro, and enthusiastically welcomed the two later books, I was not impressed with either of these.
Bester did come close to writing the first Salkind and Salkind Superman film, being the producers’ first choice. It was an intriguing possibility, but Bester’s interest in the film lay in Clark Kent (he described Superman as Kent’s ‘gun’) which was not where the Salkind’s intended to go.
The second of those later novels, The Deceivers, was Bester’s final published work. Rolly died in 1984, leaving Bester, as good as an alcoholic, alone. He died in 1987, famously leaving his estate to his favourite barman, though the claims that the unexpected legatee didn’t know who his benefactor was were a cheap, slanderous fiction: the two were good friends, who talked daily.
Since Bester’s death, his works have been reissued, with new short story collections aiming to be quite comprehensive. Two posthumous works have appeared, both quite controversial. Tender, Loving Rage is a second mainstream novel, with curious and controversial contents: it never found a publisher at the time and only appeared through the efforts of Charles Platt.
The other is the spark for this piece. Bester left behind an incomplete 92 page fragment of a new novel under the title of Psycho Hockshop. This was passed to Roger Zelazny, who completed the book and retitled it Psychoshop (which was initially misread and promoted as Psychoslop). Even then, the ‘collaboration’ didn’t appear in Zelazny’s lifetime, not seeing print until 1999, four years after Zelazny’s own death.
I didn’t buy it then, even though I’d once been a very great fan of Zelazny. But, not along ago, an excess of curiosity drove me to pick the book up cheap via eBay. Which is turn has prompted the thought that I’m overdue re-reading Bester, and that it might be interesting to read his oeuvre – which is rather smaller than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – in good old chronological order.
Starting with The Demolished Man, coming shortly.

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