Though I’m primarily surveying Alfred Bester’s career through his novels, it’s impossible to divorce him from the short stories, the novelettes and novellas by which he became famous, and which still provide some of the highlights of his career, especially in the Fifties.
There’s no one collection of short fiction that I can point to as a recommendation: my own collection involves four books, with a degree of overlap between them.
Bester started out in the Forties and left one still-vivid, still-memorable story from that period before being swept, by former SF agents Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, into writing comics. This was ‘Adam and No Eve’, an early example of Bester’s urge to bust the many cliches of SF. Bester’s tale takes on the Adam and Eve cliché, which even then was played out, and explodes it scientifically by demonstrating that the utter destruction of the planet Earth, leaving only one, pretty badly-damaged human being, is nevertheless enough to ensure the survival of life (if you’re prepared to wait long enough). You only have to return to the sea.
From comics, Bester was drawn into radio, and later TV scripting by his actress wife, but his frustration at the restrictions placed on certain types of stories led him back to the freedom of SF in the early Fifties. This would prove to be his golden age.
Of particular note are the stories ‘Time is the Traitor’, ‘Oddy and Id’, ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ and ‘The Men who murdered Mohammed’.
All of these, in their differing ways, reflect Bester’s obsession with compulsives, as we’ve already seen in The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. It’s there, to one degree or another, in all his fiction, together with the urge to undermine tropes and cliches.
The theme is at its most open in ‘Oddy and Id’, where it’s the key to the denouement. The story is about a monster, named Odysseus Gaul. He’s described from the outset as a monster, but what he looks like is a handsome, All-American college boy of no great talents. Not openly. But things work out for him. Everything he tries, succeeds. Everything he wants comes off for him. Everybody likes him. A trio of College Professors discern that Oddy has a bizarre ability: on a subconscious level, his wishes alter the world to give him everything he wants, no matter how improbable the chain of events necessary to bring this about. They see him as the answer to the world, the benefits he can produce if properly directed. But they don’t take into account Oddy’s Id…
Compulsion is also the word for John Strapp in ‘Time is the Traitor’, and the same goes for his friend, Frankie Alceste. Strapp makes Decisions, great big, rich, infallible Decisions, and Frankie makes friends. Both are driven, in their separate ways, both love the same girl. But Strapp can’t penetrate the cloak of his own hysteria because he is driven by the past, not the present.
On the other hand, ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ is a chilling take of a boy and his android, a master and his slave. It’s a chilling, horrific story, at the centre of which is a dancing robot, outlined by furnace heat. It’s about murder, and compulsion, and the transference of them between beings. All reet, all reet, be fleet and jeet. But who is the slave of whom?
Last of this quartet, ‘The Men who Murdered Mohammed’ might be also said to be a tale of compulsion, but here that’s merely a function supporting the comic development of Bester’s principal theme. This is another of Bester’s stories that has fun with tropes, in this instance Time Travel. It’s about a mad scientist, and revenge, and the cliché of going back in time to kill your grandfather, and why it’s never going to work. It runs like an electric train and, beneath the inherent absurdity, it has a serious point to be made.
These stories are all short stories as would be defined by the Hugo or Nebula Awards. Bester did, however, write at greater length, and I’d like to take three examples of this and look at them in a little more detail.
‘They don’t make life like they used to’ actually dates from 1963 and is the latest of all the stories I’m referring to. By this time, Bester had severed his links with the SF field, making sure of this by a number of caustic to the point of being offensive reviews and columns, but there is no mistaking the quality of this late contribution.
It’s an Adam and Eve story, of a sort, set in a crumbling, deserted, post-Apocalyptic New York. Two unlikely, unworldly, unthinking characters, one female, one male, have survived a nuclear war that from the beginning we understand has destroyed the whole human race. Except for this implausible pair.
Because though Linda Neilson and Jim Mayo may well be the last humans alive, the duo are completely oblivious to the reality of their situation. Linda’s living the life of her dreams, taking over luxurious living accommodation, filling her home with objets d’art, fine furnishings, fine food and drink, and an ever-expanding wardrobe. But she’s an honest girl: whatever she takes, no matter how expensive, she leaves an IOU.
Things start when she meets Jim by almost knocking him down on Fifth Avenue. The two don’t recognise the fortuitous nature of the last two humans bumping into each other. Jim’s on his way south and isn’t interested in stopping, even though Linda, a buxom, Scandinavian-type blonde, is currently naked and completely unselfconscious about it.
Because Jim’s a man’s man, with no time for girly-girls who get sozzled and run up tabs they can’t hope to pay off. He’s been living in a bar with a fellow male survivor who’s been running a private TV station for him. Of course, any time Jim sees a show he doesn’t like, he blasts the TV with his shotgun. His friend insists he has to put on these other programmes, to balance out the demographic, even though Jim’s the only one watching.
When he runs out of TV sets to blast, Jim blasts his friend instead. Now the shows don’t come on at all, and Jim is looking for someone to fix his TV again.
You get the picture. Call them a pair of kooks, but they’re the sole hope for reconstructing the human race and not only do they have not a thing in common but they can walk around naked in front of each other without provoking a response or even understanding that there is a response to be provoked.
Only when a serious danger asserts itself, when the new masters of Earth close in, do this unlikely pair begin to apprehend they are man and woman, and need to resolve to fight together for their survival. But it is in that moment that maturity strikes, and when it strikes it is sobering and frightful and final.
Perhaps my favourite of Bester’s short fiction in ‘The Pi Man’. I have two versions of this, virtually identical: Bester re-wrote the story after publication, changing the name of the protagonist, changing the setting from London to New York and removing a couple of what he saw as crudities. I prefer the original version, precisely for its rawer edge.
It’s another story about compulsion, only this is a strange, bizarre and, once we begin to get a grasp on what it means to be driven by this compulsion, a horrifying story.
Whether as Abraham Storm or Peter Marko, the Pi Man is driven by patterns. Life is composed of patterns, some of them simple and self-evident – day/night, four seasons – but underneath these patterns there are others, strange patterns, inconceivable ones, patterns that operate in complex rhythms. The Pi Man senses these and is forced to act to balance out such patterns, no matter the cost to himself. Or to others about him.
He can have neither friendship nor love, because of the fear of what may be demanded to balance out those patterns.
Inevitably, the story is a pursuit, two pursuits. One is by Law Enforcement, suspecting a spy, a double agent, needing to know why Storm/Marko acts as he does, the meaning of the broadcasts that give him momentary relief by scrambling patterns. The other is a woman who, despite everything he does to force her away, insists upon being part of his life.
Her will is even greater than his in this instance. She knows who he is, she knows what love has made him do, she knows what might be her fate, yet she places her trust in love. Both The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination end in profound statements of faith in love, in human beings, in what lies inside them. No such ending is given in this story, no such faith can be professed. The girl knows what that means, and her acceptance is both touching and chilling.
This is one story where I am under no urge to find out what happened after.
I’ve left till last that miniature novel of the twin names: ‘5,721,009’ or ‘The Star-Comber’. Bester explained that it was written on request, a plea to write a story around a magazine cover (a popular tactic in the Fifties and, in comics, on into the Sixties). The cover Bester was sent showed a space-helmeted convict, prison no. 5721009, chained to the wall of a cell blown into space. Bester found it impossible to take seriously, an horrendously putrid, stale cliché that no serious story could be made of, but that was the key to his inspiration.
Bester produced a crackling, fast-paced, ingenious story that immersed itself in cliches, that dug and dug to find them, to rip apart the adolescent nature, the self-aggrandising form of these wishes and aspirations. He put them in the mind of an artist, confined to an asylum, he torched them through the means of the tall, gaunt, sprightly in manner, bitter in expression Mr Solon Aquila, with his multi-tongue expostulations and his unexpected background. Bester takes the piss out of, and a gigantic piss over SF’s childish soul and how anything got written again is a marvel to behold.
To be honest, it’s hard to see by how much this story could have been expanded. It’s virtue is it’s brevity, and the ideas raked to hell are so flimsy as to have been unbearable at greater length. Nor could the fire burn so hotly over a greater distance. But ‘The Star-Comber’, which was Bester’s preference, covers a lot of territory and bridges tremendous depths.
By the way, if your copy of it ends on a line incorporating the number 5,721,010, have respect for the long-gone author, and erase it, mentally if not physically. Bester never liked to explain too much.
This doesn’t represent all of Bester’s short fiction, but this for me is the cream. A prolonged look is however recommended.