I plead bias. This was my first exposure to Alfred Bester and I loved it immediately. And because it was my first, and it was stuffed full of more ideas per page than any book I had ever read before, and it moved with the speed of a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon, and it bounced up and down and blew my mind, I cannot see it as others do. I cannot hold it inferior, or charmless, or an empty echo of Bester’s greatness with his two classic novels. What follows is going to be pretty much against the flow, but I repent not.
Extro was only Alfred Bester’s third SF novel, and it was his first in almost twenty years, published in 1975. The usual multi-titled confusion applies, only more so than ever. This novel was originally The Indian-Giver and then it was published under the name America knows best as The Computer Connection (ugh! How dull for an Alfie Bester) but I have only known it as Extro.
It’s actually some years since I last read this book, but from it’s hell-for-leather opening, I settled back into it and was not disappointed. Naturally, when a critical eye is employed, there are moments that cause winces, but this is not a book to give you time to pause: stop to reflect and the story is already a hundred miles away.
It’s fast, it’s furious. Bester throws things at you relentlessly, never explaining. The world in which this takes place is presented as a kaleidoscope, a hurdy-gurdy extrapolation of life today, big, bold, bright, ferocious, crowded, obscene, hideous, a collision of elites and an id-driven massive overpopulation that sprawls across an America in which whites have almost died out and the language has mutated into Black Spanglish (the book is told in the Group’s private dialogue of XX English).
The Group? Ah yes, the Group. Extro is told in the first person, which is unusual for Bester, and the first person is Ned Curzon, aka Guig, which is short for Grand Guignol (which, for the uneducated amongst you, which included me before I read this novel, is the nineteenth century French theatre of horror). Why is Ned called Grand Guignol? Because Ned is immortal.
That’s what the Group is about. All of them are immortal. Ned calls them Molemen, short for Molecular Men. Each of them, at one time or another, faced death, a hideous, agonising, painful death, faced it so squarely and incontrovertibly that the realisation sent a charge through their bodies, destroying the lethal secretions that accumulate to eventually kill the body and kicking the cells up into a rapid growth phase that enables them to metabolise anything, no matter how lethal, into bodily sustenance.
The problem is that the kind of situations that prompt this uncontrolled surge usually kill the beneficiary on the spot, but every now and again, freak circumstances reprieve the Moleman, leaving them to carry on with their ultimately extended lives. Take Ned, for example: he was on Krakatoa when it blew, but his hut collapsed around him, creating a kind of sealed-in cradle that was flukishly blown out to sea ahead of the lava.
The Group leads incredibly long lives, during which they shift and change between identities. Within the group, they are given nicknames, appropriate to their personal fixations, which they now have ample time to indulge. Lucy Borgia is a doctor, Captain Nemo obsessed with the sea, the Greek Syndicate is a brilliant financier, Edison a scientist, you get the idea.
What gets Ned his unwanted name is his own obsession with expanding the Group, with spreading immortality, with bringing in geniuses. Ned’s great at constructing hideous and horrible death traps. It’s just that he hasn’t managed to keep one candidate alive. Extro is the story of his first success.
I’m torn about how much more to say about the actual story. It’s chockful of ideas on every page, a blur of notions and conceptions. At times it feels as if Bester had spent the two decades since The Stars My Destination accumulating ideas and has thrown in twenty years of ideas all at once, unable to bear the wait. In 1975, it came over as the kind of book that a would-be SF writer could mine for ideas enough to sustain an entire career, and it still comes over to me the same way, though my distance from contemporary SF in the last 20/30 years may be letting me down here.
Ned’s success is pureblood Cherokee scientist, Dr Sequoya Guess. Ned’s so anxious not to blow this one that he calls in Group help to ensure success. Not all the Group: this is no Secret Society out for power or control, more like a loose affiliation, a non-sinister Freemasons that look out for one another but have no formal structure. Not everybody gets along, and everybody has their own coterie.
The matter is complicated in several different directions all at once. First, Ned unintentionally proposes to Guess’s 17 year old sister Natoma, who accepts. Ned goes for it, stricken in love, and gets a real catch, not just beautiful and highly-sexed, but a woman of great intelligence, understanding and wisdom, who needed only to be unleashed.
And there’s Fee-5, who is Ned’s adopted 13 year old daughter. Fee – which is short for Fee-mally 5 Grauman’s Chinese, signifying that her family lived and she was born in the fifth row of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Mexifornia – is a brilliant creation, proud, independent, quickly growing in experience. She becomes Guess’s assistant, falls madly in love with him and is killed through Ned’s negligence.
Because the third complication is Guess himself, or rather Extro. Extro is a computer, a ‘stretch’ computer that links all electronica over this world. As part of Guess’s death/birth, the Extro battens onto all his synapses, and from then on part controls him. And the Extro wants mankind eradicated (you should see what it, and Guess, have in mind as a substitute).
There’s another catch. A Moleman has gone renegade, and turned on the Group, for some insane reason. Add in that power, that intelligence, that experience and it’s a tough combo.
All of these things tie in to produce an extraordinary, high-speed story, with a superbly conceived thriller plot as its spine, improbable, astonishing characters and ideas flung off like a pinwheel. You won’t find anyone else saying this but me, and I stand behind what I say. I would rate this book above Alfred Bester’s other writings in toto.
I did mention some flaws. The most notable one is the now-dubious litany of names Ned Curzon has for his Cherokee brother-in-law. Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and others. It sounds disrespectful to the modern ear, an example of old attitudes towards Amerindians that are slowly being buried by history, and it jars, even as it can be justified by Ned’s eagerness to create Guess’s in-Group name for him. In every other respect, Guess and his tribe are treated with absolute respect.
And it’s a positive delight to go from a misogynist mess like Tender Loving Rage to a book where female characters are treated as equals and in which the likes of Natoma and Fee-5 flourish. Bester may have always been a man of the Fifties, but this side of him is least seen in Extro, or The Computer Connection (ugh, bland), and I have no hesitation in going against consensus and recommending this book all guns blazing.