Psychoshop was the very last work of Alfred Bester to be published, almost a dozen years after his death in 1987.
Among his effects was found a manuscript, not entirely complete, of approximately 90 pages, of an intended novel titled Psycho Hock Shop (the US equivalent of a pawnbroker). Roger Zelazny was invited to complete the manuscript and did so, although the completed book was not published until three years after Zelazny’s own death in 1995.
This is not the kind of backstory that fills the reader with any confidence about a book.
Psychoshop was issued with a laudatory introduction by modern hard SF writer, Greg Bear, a clearly very intelligent man but not the automatic choice to sing the praises of either Bester or Zelazny. Bear speaks of them as jazz masters, blowing hot and cold riffs, as if the writing styles of the pair had ever been comparable, and he claims that their merger is almost seamless.
So far as he is speaking to any changes, amendments or fills that Zelazny provides to Bester’s extant manuscript, I’d agree, but the moment Zelazny takes over with a free hand to develop the nascent tale, it’s obvious from the first paragraph (Zelazny uses the word ‘knaves’, a typically Zelazny term but not a word Bester would employ) that we have switched hands and from there on, Zelazny makes no pretence that he is aping Bester’s style or approach in any way. It’s a switch, from hot to cool, and the fault line is too obvious.
But what of the story? It’s in the first person again, the first person in this case being Alfred Noir, feature writer for ‘Rigadoon’ magazine, being sent on assignment to Rome. Actually, we are never formally told Alf’s surname, which is extremely unfortunate, given that Bester’s readers know him to have been, for many years, a feature writer for ‘Holiday’ magazine. By the time Alf’s real surname is introduced, back-handedly, at least one reader cannot escape think of the narrator as being Bester in person.
Reference to ‘the story’ however clearly implies a narrative, perhaps even a plot, and in Bester’s stretch of the book, it’s pushing it to say that there is one. Alf is sent to Italy to investigate The Black Place of the Soul-Changer, being run by a mysterious individual known only as Adam Maser. This enigma is so hard to find that Alf accomplishes it in a seven-line paragraph on the second page of the story.
(I cannot resist referencing this paragraph, which begins by arrogantly dividing the world into a 1% elite and 99% citizens, whom Bester holds in contempt as being terminally uncool, unlike himself. This, in the mid-Eighties, from a writer unable to accept that his own ‘cool’ belonged entirely to the Fifties. Pfui!)
The Black Place, or Luogo Nero, or Buoco Nero as in Black Hole – nebular kind, not Calcuttan – is the Psycho Hock Shop, where people go to lose and acquire personality traits. Adam, whose name is short for Magfaser, but who is also referred to, erratically, as Macavity, the Mystery Cat (T. S. Eliot and, regrettably, Andrew Lloyd-Webber).
Adam is, apparently, from the distant future, but has gone back in time to operate the Black Place from at least medieval times (not that Time has any actual meaning in the Psychoshop) for reasons that never become entirely clear, except that he is the Kaleidolon, a kind of semi-synthetic multi-talented being, under observation to see how he performs.
He and Alf take to each other with unconvincing ease, especially Alf, who doesn’t query a word of any of this. Once at the Black Place, Alf meets Glory, Adam’s companion, nursemaid, minder, employee etc. Glory is a snake-woman, who regular sheds her skin: she and Alf are soon in bed together, enjoying interminable sex.
Such as there is a plot in Bester’s manuscript, it comes when the current Count Cagliostro commissions Adam to build the perfect android, complete with a perfect balance of attributes and abilities. Adam dubs it an Iddroid, and so delights in the pursuit of this project that he refuses payment. Alf, brought into the business, and Glory, start collecting what’s needed.
And on page 69, at the end of chapter 3, Alfred Bester ended his writing career. What he left for Roger Zelazny to pick up on is debatable. Bester used to outline furiously, in great detail. What has been said of his later career, the alcoholism, the physical difficulty of writing with his eye problems, leads me to infer that there was little, or perhaps nothing. That certainly is how the rest of the book feels.
Roger Zelanzy. I first discovered him in 1974, shortly after I first read The Lord of the Rings and very early in my enthusiasm for SF and Fantasy. He was a great favourite of mine for at least twenty years, and I had everything he’d published, up to and including Eye of Cat. But times and interests change, and now I no longer have even the two ‘Amber‘ series. But it makes him a writer I know very well, well enough to be suspicious of his taking over a Bester project. And it makes me very conscious that the remaining two-thirds of Psychoshop are poor, very poor. Dull, stylised, lacking energy, riddled with Zelaznian cliché, every bit a reminder of why I divested myself of all his work.
The first thing Zelazny does is to get rid of Adam for what feels like a very long time. Left to themselves, Alf and Glory talk a lot, have sex a lot, and occasionally open the shop for short spells (on the page) during which they go through multiple cases all tagged with implausible names, rather like Dr Watson referring to untold Sherlock Holmes stories. The talk is speculative and would-be hip but, after she reveals to Alf that there are seven different bodies all identical to him hung up in a back room, tends to the repetitive: she thinks he’s actually an enemy operating under false memories, he assures her he’s a friend without ulterior motive, she doesn’t believe it (of course, it turns out she’s right).
As for the sex, it’s an endless and quickly tedious round of sophomoric euphemisms for what they’re about to do, leaping instantly to contented exhaustion after they’ve done it, and none of it has any point,
There are also a great many references to plans and schemes and futures and stuff that Adam and Glory are going to reveal to Alf, when the time is right, only the time is never right and he’s just too damned accepting of what is a pretty obvious runaround. There’s also a lot of frankly incomprehensible to follow stuff about the far future, in which humanity has interbred so much (as has everybody else) that there are pretty few purebred humans left, better known as Colosodians, who are like super bounty hunters, trackers and killers.
And Alf – no, it isn’t his real name and he is programmed with fake memories only it turns out to be by himself – is a Colosodian, which gives Zelazny plenty of scope for his trademark kick-by-blow accounts of hand to hand combat that are so plain that it’s impossible to visualise what the hell is going on.
In what little vestige of story that can be gleaned from this mess, two things stand out. Orion (formerly Alf Noir) is here to shut down Adam and the Black Place. Why this should be so, apart from the fact that it is shut down round about now according to history, does not appear to be explained and, since Alf then helps Adam and Glory start up again in secret, does not appear to matter.
But back to the Iddroid, or so Dominoid as Cagliostro (and Zelazny rename it), which those with acute memories will remember as being the probable point of Bester’s story, a very long time ago. It seems that the Dominoid has been created to be the perfect thing to survive the Big Crunch at the end of this Universe and emerge from the Big Bang at the start of the next to become its God – with Cagliostro’s personality imprinted upon it.
Who saw that coming, eh, in amongst Alf and Glory’s monotonous fucking?
But don’t worry about the next universe having an unsuitable God, Urtch, a broken down wino who happens to be this Universe’s God, asserts himself to oversee the next universe too.
At which point I’m tempted to reverse myself into religious faith again, just so that I can scream something along the lines of, “Jesus Christ, this is fucking awful!!!!!”
What makes this unholy and incomprehensible mess all the more degrading is that there are glimpses of a genuine story in there, especially in the notion of the surreptitious creation of an ideal creature to survive the transition between Universes, and to put itself in a position to be the next God. But it needs far better than Bester’s hokey Psycho Hock Shop to set it up and it needs far better than Zelazny’s mewlings, an utterly broken shadow of his former ability, to establish and deal with it.
It was the whimsical purchase of Psychoshop, the cheap curiosity that I satisfied in late 2015 that has led to this brief series on Bester. The book was a curiosity first time round, a disaster second time and I have no intention of reading it for a third. Rarely has a book so bad been published, and the fact that they waited until both writers had died speaks truthfully.
Bester is worth reading but, with the exception of my beloved Extro, do not read anything after 1970. Trust me on this one, there are far better things to do with your limited time.