Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: Psychoshop (with Roger Zelazny)


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.

Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: The Deceivers


I didn’t know what I’d make of The Deceivers. It was more than thirty years since I’d last read it and, apart from the fact that I had been disappointed with it from the very outset, I could not remember a thing about the book. This was as if I was reading it for the very first time.
Nor did I remember anything about it whilst reading it, and I am usually very good about having my memory jogged about something in a book previously read, no matter how long after I return to it.
Oddly enough, after the horrendousness of Golem 100, I found myself quietly liking this book. Not to the extent of ignoring its many flaws, or of finding it in the least bit convincing, but it lacks the larger part of the misanthropy, the terrible urge to wallow in horror that makes Golem 100 such an unclean experience. Simply by dialling back on the crassness, The Deceivers becomes a by default more pleasant experience.
Oh, but it is so bad in so many ways! I don’t mean such almost inevitable factors such as the underlying racism, his misogyny and his even more vicious homophobia, but in the book itself, the lack of any adequate idea for an actual storyline, the pages devoted to extrapolation that once would have been a fascinating digression on a dazzling future but which is now backwards-directed discourses on racial characteristics, and the confusingly slipshod structure which slips into and out of first and third parties, whilst supposing to be an account compiled from everyone’s stories by a figure simultaneously controlling and peripheral, who drops into and out of the story, which is about someone else, and unforgivably, is a quasi-authorial figure who lacks a genuine presence.
I’d be tempted to say that the book demands the attentions of a strong-minded editor, except for the manifest evidence that an editorial hand would basically demolish the book and leave nothing on which to build.
To me, this is a dead book. It’s been written because the author has to write, whether he has anything to write about or not. That’s something most people don’t understand: writing is a compulsion, sometimes as strong as the compulsions that drive the Gully Foyles and Ben Reich’s of fiction. It can’t just be switched on and off at will. We think in words: we work things out in words, and if we have nothing to be said, we will still look at new ways of saying things. That’s what comes off The Deceivers for me.
Very well then: what is this book about? The hard ones first, huh?
The book is about Rogue Winter, or properly R-og Uinta. Rogue is some kind of super-enhanced human, whose special conception is dealt with in a preliminary section that riffs a bit off Bester’s successful Sixties short story, ‘Somebody up there likes me’. Rogue’s ‘parents’ die in a spaceship crash as he’s adopted by the Maoris, who now have a planet, or a moon, to themselves somewhere in the outer reaches of the Solar System (it’s the twenty-seventh century and Man has colonised the Solar but in racially specific terms, naturally).
This is a Solar system suffused with the energy of Meta, a super-source mined on a moon run by the Jinks (i.e., Japanese-Chinese, or J-Chinks, which is the furthest I’m going to go into those kind of terms).
Rogue is a Synergist, which appears to be an upgraded version of Bester’s inductors, those who deduce from disparate information. Synergism involves an extra focus on patterns, of which Bester demonstrates a couple of ‘sophisticated’ examples, such as a trail based on The Twelve Days of Christmas, although it rather falls down when Rogue fails to spot the obvious one in the back half of the book that rather batters itself against the readers’ eyes.
Rogue is also an unconscious agent for some Terran Government organisation, represented by the sometime narrator, Odessa Partridge, who’s in the secrecy-about-something business. And despite being adopted, he’s heir to the Maori kingdom, despite not wanting to be a king. But his predecessor dies and he has to accede to the throne, despite opposition, which makes him a dangerous figure to some in the Solar.
Shortly prior to this, Rogue is set upon by, and falls in love with one of his magazine’s co-workers, Demi Jeroux. Demi’s from Titania, so that makes her a shapeshifter, and she can change into anything, except perhaps a character with a discernible character or serious point in the story. Actually, despite the fact Titanians can’t get impregnated by humans, she gets knocked-up on the first night with Rogue.
And, whilst Rogue is off getting crowned, Demi disappears, presumed kidnapped by the Meta Mafia (i.e., the Jinks) which sends Rogue on a rampage, by the end of which he’s defeated, humiliated and broken, possibly permanently, the slickest, most sophisticated mind in the Solar, a guy somewhat smarter than every other cleverclogs put together, but that doesn’t matter because this T’omas is a sick fag, anyway. You can always tell.
Confused by that? I’ve not been deliberately vague about the story, that it all I can make of it 48 hours after reading the book. It really is as disjointed, inexplicable and broken-backed as that. Incoherent would be a kind word to use.
As for Demi, she’s not kidnapped, only hidden, and it’s crucial to keeping the book going for as long as it does that Rogue should ignore what’s under his nose.
It’s a tangible disaster, and first time round I read it with increasing dismay, unable to see any merit in it. A long time later, with no expectations, I admit that I found it mildly likeable, and whereas I don’t intend to keep Golem 100, I’ll probably hold on to this. In it’s way, it’s an example. Of what, I’m not entirely sure. Most people who want to write should read it: much will be learned.
The Deceivers was the last book published in Alfred Bester’s lifetime, and the last book he finished. But writers have to write, and many years later, there was one more book to consider.

Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: Golem 100


I’ve already said that Alfred Bester’s work after his return to SF in the Seventies did not receive critical acclaim. In fact, it was criticised on all sides as confused, without wit or charm, graceless and clumsy, and for betraying attitudes that were offensive, especially with regard to women. I’ll defend Extro to the death against those charges, but I can say very little in favour of Bester’s next novel, the 1980 publication, Golem 100.
Like Extro, the novel grew out of a submission to Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions. This time, ‘The Four-Hour Fugue’, a decent two-hander set in the same future as Extro, was split into several chapters and built into what little structure Golem 100 possesses.
Indeed, it’s two stars – Blaise Shima, olfactory genius, of Japanese heritage, possessed of the purest nose, invaluable to the perfumery industry and Gretchen Nunn, a black woman, a gifted, indeed supreme inductor, or super-detective, genius at drawing inferences from disparate information – are joined by Subadar Ind’dni, a Hindi Police Inspector, a subtle mind, an implacable enforcer of such law as is effective in this anarchic, dog-eat-dog-but-only-after-raping-it future, in investigating a monster – the Golem 100 of the title.
I’ve taken care to identify the racial heritage of the three principals for a reason. Though this book is set two hundred years into the future, a future in which genetic lines have been mixed beyond extraction, a future in which race hatred and the kind of evil epithets that have been thrown about in the past have been forgotten, Bester insists throughout the course of the book in throwing exactly these kind of insults at each of his stars. It isn’t necessary, it isn’t relevant, it sticks out like a sore thumb as out-moded and nasty even in 1980.
It creates a sour taste and the sense that Bester is revelling in this kind of viciousness never leaves the page.
But then Bester is revelling in a lot of things that make this book unpleasant to read. There are murders committed and described in grisly detail, and there is a string of rapes performed with vicious brutality, which are reduced to a series of cartoons, and there’s an idiotic section in the climax where Gretchen’s ascension is celebrated by serial screwing with timid, meek men elevated with stupid superhero names and described in schoolboy terms that is just plain obnoxious.
Our principals are drawn together into the investigation of a monster that appears to have arisen out of the undermind, which in the book is actualised as a non-physical region of space into which, on three separate occasions, the principals descend on drug-induced ‘trips’.
First Blaise and Gretchen, in uncontrolled circumstances, then Gretchen alone, in clinical conditions, and finally Ind’dni, in similar conditions. His ‘arising’ is accompanied by a furious climax in which Gretchen undergoes a kind of physical and mental metamorphosis that turns her into the next evolutionary stage, during which she kills Blaise inadvertently and ends up with Ind’dni, who – in a forerunner of the end of Twin Peaks – turns out to be the monster instead, embodied, as Golem 101.
Yes, it is as confusing, and in plot terms, as perfunctory as that.
What sinks the book, without trace, is the medium by which Bester chooses to introduce the menace. It is a circle of women, eight women, a hive or bee-hive, who meet up in the afternoons. Already, you can sense disaster ahead, can’t you? These women are all white, all ‘ladies who lunch’, fluffy of head, eccentric of personality and reduced throughout the book to nicknames, like the Group in Extro, but this time the names are condescending and patronising. The women are, from the outset, gossipy and silly, irresponsible by virtue of having no capacity for responsibility, and they’re trying to raise the Devil.
The bee-hive is led by Regina, the Queen Bee, and the rest are made up of Little Mary Mixup, Nellie Gwyn, Miss Priss, Sarah Heartburn, Yenta Caliente, and the twins, Oodgedye and Udgedye, who are identical and make so much play on their interchangeability that they have not even one personality between them. When Gretchen attaches herself to the Hive, investigating the Golem, she is nick-named BB – for Black Beauty. Yeesh.
The main saving grace of this book is not what you want as a saving grace. Bester’s experiments with moving beyond mere typography extended to a collaboration with artist Jack Gaughan, who illustrates the three psycho-journeys with, largely, full page, symbolic illustrations, accompanied by a word, or line, or at most two lines of dialogue. This enables the reader to zip through immense stretches of pages at a serious rate of knots, drastically reducing the reading time of the book.
Although the first of such interludes is spoiled by Bester then recounting – twice – what Gretchen and Blaise are actually doing whilst they’re seeing Gaughan’s art.
To be honest, further analysis is redundant. Bester has completely lost himself in this shapeless mish-mash, where nothing but unpleasant and antediluvian attitudes surface to give shape and form of a kind to certain sequences. Rape and death are even brought together in a sickening sequence that triggers the climactic hash.
Is there really nothing salvageable about this novel? I make one concession: the real name of bee-hive woman Nellie Gwyn is given as Ildefonsa Lafferty, which will mean nothing to the vast majority of you, but is a delicate tip of the hat towards the inimitable writer R. A. Lafferty, and to his classic short story, ‘Slow Tuesday Night’, in which the indefatigable Ildefonsa romps through the tale, constantly divorcing the men who make it big throughout the night, but having had them first.
Though she deserves a better book in which to be paid tribute.
If you want to know more, read it yourself. It’s available: I had to re-purchase the book after many years, in order to write this piece and the same goes for the next one, of which I have virtually no memory before I read it. Don’t spend much: it really isn’t worth it, and I won’t be retaining it.

Alfred Bester – a driver of Tigers: Extro


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.

Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: The Short Fiction


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.

Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: The Stars My Destination


Properly, I should be referring to this novel as Tiger! Tiger! since that is the title Alfred Bester chose for his second SF novel, and was the title under which it was published in Britain. But in America, the title was, unsurprisingly, thought to have too little connection with SF, and the book was issued as The Stars My Destination, taken from a repeating jingle in the story. And my copy of the book is an American paperback, which I bought decades ago in the long-gone London bookshop, ‘Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed’.
(Technically, I didn’t buy it myself, my then firm bought it for me, not that they were ever aware. From time to time, I would get sent to London to deliver certain things too important or urgent to be left to the post. On such occasions I would be issued with a ‘float’ from Cashiers and told to just hand in the change when I got back. As long as we didn’t blatantly abuse the situation, no questions were asked as to exactly what the money was spent on. The Stars My Destination was one such fruit.)
For a very long time, this book was called ‘The Greatest SF Novel of All Time’. Except perhaps among older readers, I suspect that’s no longer the case, though it’s almost certain that, without the likes of The Stars My Destination, William Gibson and those other writers who formed cyberpunk in the early Nineties would be writing something very different.
Looked at now, Stars is indelibly a product of the Fifties, just as is The Demolished Man. It’s informed by the attitudes of the time, which are now far enough distant to be as strange as any futuristic society. Structurally, the two books are similar: both are set in the twenty-fourth century, both create societies transformed by one single factor – telepathy in The Demolished Man, personal teleportation in Stars – both centre upon a driven man acting against society’s constraints and both take a classic form as the underpinning of their own unfolding story. In Stars‘s case, it’s Edmund Dante, and The Count of Monte Christo.
Bester sets things up in a Prologue of the kind excised from The Demolished Man, but retained forever in Stars, which serves to set up teleportation, or ‘jaunting’ as the key component of the world we’re about to enter. Then he introduces Gulliver Foyle, Gully Foyle, the protagonist of this story and one of the most famous characters of SF history.
Gully Foyle’s a nothing, a nobody. He comes from the lowest underclass, a big, shambling outline of a man with nothing within. Foyle lacks energy, intelligence, interest, capability. He barely exists, he barely thinks.
Yet Gully Foyle has survived six months in space, a shipwrecked sailor keeping himself alive on a destroyed spaceship, living in a four by four by six locker that every few days he has to fill with oxygen.
Gully should be dead, he should be mad, but he has too little going on in his head to go insane with.
Until ‘Vorga’, a ship that forms part of  the commercial fleet of Presteign, approaches the wreckage of ‘Nomad’. Foyle hails it, expecting rescue, but is abandoned: ‘Vorga’ passes on, leaving Gully Foyle to his fate. But the act transforms Foyle: the overwhelming hatred, the black compulsion to revenge, energises him, drives him into rescuing himself from his helpless situation, so that he can get back at ‘Vorga’, can “kill it filthy, kill it dead”.
The great strength of Stars is that, despite a supporting cast of powerful personalities devoted to catching up with Foyle, it is Gully who is the centre of the story. He is Ben Reich without the distraction of splitting his time with Lincoln Powell, and he is more than Ben Reich in that he is the more dementedly-crazy, the cruder, the more powerful, and his compulsion is something that we see driven into him from outside. He is not a rich man out to enrich himself further, to give rise to his self-indulgent urge to murder, he is the exact opposite. He is a poor man, the lowest of the low, transformed by the urge for revenge. Foyle begins as the crudest of the crude and gradually grows in everything except his response to the evil done him. Everyone around him is affected by the compulsion that even he cannot get over: Ghoul, liar, lecher, cancer, all words thrown at him with good reason.
In addition, Bester sets the story against the background of a war, a war within the Solar System, Inner Planets versus Outer Satellites: Foyle is originally a shipwrecked sailor from a destroyed Inner Planets ship.
The story moves like a whirlwind. Foyle runs, fights, is imprisoned, forces his way out, escapes into space. From very early on he is marked: a tiger’s mask is tattooed across his face, and when this is bleached out of him, he discovers that the tattoo is burned into his face: in moments of anger or high emotion, the blood of his tiger face flares under his skin.
The pace of the story is also accelerated by Bester’s choice of teleportation rather than telepathy to distinguish this society. Telepathy is cerebral, in itself static, requiring other elements to provide the story with its action, whereas jaunting is visceral. The conquest of distance, the instantaneous removal of body, means that the story can be nothing but fast.
And to surround Foyle, Bester constructs a complex of opposition, as everyone he encounters, everyone he touches, turns onto enemies in the face of his drive. There is Robin Wednesbury, the jaunting teacher who is a hapless telesender, able to project her mind but not receive thoughts, whom Foyle in his early, brutish state, rapes. Peter Yang-Yeovil of Central Intelligence. The radiation-saturated Saul Dagenham, courier chief. Presteign of Presteign, the commercial baron and his blind daughter, the beautiful but cruel Olivia, who sees in ultra-violet. Regis Sheffield, lawyer and Outer Satellites Fifth Columnist. Jisbella McQueen, fiery criminal and escapee, who owes her freedom to Foyle but is driven to oppose him by his monomania.
(And if you’ve noticed that nearly all the names are British places, bear in mind that the book was conceived and started in England, where Bester and his wife were touring with the option monies for the never-realised film of Who He?).
The Stars My Destination is ultimately about more than Gully Foyle’s obsessive quest for revenge. The forces swarming around him have more in mind than stopping the destructive drive of an increasingly dangerous man. Ostensibly, they are engaged in a battle to locate and take control of PyrE, twenty bars of a dangerous explosive that is detonated by thought. There is a war, that the Outer Satellites are moving towards winning: PyrE can tip the balance either way. The twenty bars were on the Nomad: only Foyle knows where they are, even though he doesn’t know they exist, let alone their properties.
This leads to a literally pyrotechnic ending, where the speed at which Bester moves increases exponentially. Foyle is caught in a PyrE explosion that jolts all his senses into a synaesthesic state. Bester lifts off the page with typographical twists and booms that mimic the effect of Foyle’s skewed senses. Foyle becomes the Burning Man, an image that has haunted him throughout the book and then vanishes, hurtling around the universe.
For the other secret, kept under deeper wraps until now, is that Foyle can space-jaunte. He can teleport across space, millions of miles further than any other jaunter to date. What makes him thus, and whether it can be learnt, makes him even more valuable than the PyrE.
But it’s not Foyle’s hitherto unguessed-at talent – which got him into his castaway position before even the book began – that forms the basis of Bester’s ending, of the rush of hope, optimism and belief on which he concludes. That’s PyrE.
Everyone wants it, be it for their power and aggrandisement, or to keep it hidden and used only as a weapon of ultimate resort, or for it to be destroyed as a tool too powerful even to exist. In this argument, PyrE is an obvious stand-in for the A-Bomb, or perhaps it was the H-Bomb by 1956, and these are the arguments with which the world itself had to grapple.
In this world, we, the people, were the hapless ones, excluded forever from the decision-making, though we were the ones who would be affected in our multi-millions by the use of such weapons, whether against us or ‘for’ us.  In our name, by tigers who stood above s, driven by their own urges. Better Dead than Red, Generals and Republicans would grate, but I don’t recall any of them ever asking me my opinion about that choice.
But Bester, and Foyle, have a different idea. PyrE is not to be kept hidden, an invisible Armageddon on high. Foyle jaunts and jaunts and jaunts, throwing out bars of PyrE wherever he goes, putting it in the hands – and the thoughts – of the commonality. Challenging them, demanding of them, they who have the most but use the least, to escape from their brutality, their ignorance, their laziness. It’s time for them to grow up, to demand an account, to no longer let things be done in their name but to take on that responsibility for themselves. Like Gully Foyle, monster though he be, has made something incredible of himself.
Foyle challenges the common man, the gutter man, to prove that the stars really are their destination.
Wisely, Bester leaves the future to our imaginings. Foyle, his tiger mask again ablaze, goes into a deep sleep. In the future we ‘see’ we reveal ourselves. But there is a hint, to say that all is, and will be well.
It’s almost impossible not to bracket The Stars My Destination with The Demolished Man. There are similarities of tone and structure between the two books, and for a very long time they were Alfred Bester’s career in SF: these and a host of brilliant, eye-popping short stories that exist in a continuum.
There’s even the typographical tricks that seek to lift off the flat surface of the page, most notably in the synaesthesic section, but also in the use of the male and female gender symbols (that I can’t reproduce) in place of ‘o’s and ‘a’s in names.
To me, The Stars My Destination is the better book. It is a classic, and its influence on SF, both contemporaneously and over and again since is palpable. Next, I’m going to look at some of that shorter fiction before examining Bester’s next chronologically written but long-unpublished novel.

Alfred Bester: a Driver of Tigers – The Rat Race


The Rat Race was first published in Britain in 1984, almost thirty years after its debut in America as Who He? I’m using the British title because that’s the one with which I’m familiar. It’s a picture of the US television industry in those early days of live performance, and Bester prefaced the reissue with a note putting what follows firmly in its place as historical, with no relation to the modern industry.
The book’s appearance took me completely by surprise. By then, I had read almost all of Bester’s SF output, including the two late, disappointing novels, and I had not even heard of any mainstream fiction by him. But it’s very clearly his work: the same drive, the same attack, the same compulsions, the same psychoanalytical underpinnings, applied to a world as strange and rare as that of The Demolished Man, and no less intriguing for being ‘real’.
Though The Rat Race was clearly not a major work, it had been well-received in 1955, and optioned for adaptation as a feature film. The film was never made, but the money Bester received enabled him and his actress wife to tour Europe. This windfall would have extensive effects upon Bester’s career.
Bester and his wife – fictionalised lightly as Kitten (a nickname) and Robin – play peripheral roles in this story, with Bester playing the narrator’s role. The story covers a week, between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and it begins with its end, with the cast and crew of the Sunday night television Quiz/Variety show ‘Who He?’ performing the show live, with a dead body hanging from the set beams, its heels five foot above them, and only just concealed by the stage curtain.
That’s a hell of a set-up.
Central to the story is Jordan ‘Jake’ Lennox. Jake is a scriptwriter, the writer, and co-creator of ‘Who He?’ Jake’s a fighter, who’s come up out of nowhere, battling his way from nothing to his current position of respect and success. But there’s a conflict between his self-image as an elegant, austere, kindly, liberal man, ‘second son of the Duke of Suffolk’ and his inner persona as a roughneck, a scrapper, driven by violent impulses, a hard-drinker. When we first see him, he’s gone on a twenty-four hour bender on Christmas Eve, after the ‘Who He?’ broadcast, and is so drunk he has no idea who he is, having gotten involved with a fat, blonde prostitute, convinced his name is Clarence Fox, a Quaker from Pennsylvania.
Later in the book, the events of that bender will be re-created, and an epic of endurance and serendipity it is.
Back on the show, a crisis is developing. ‘Who He?’ is fronted by the ventriloquist act Mason & Dixon, and Mason’s made a mistake. Asking the caller to give an alternate name for Santa Claus, expecting St Nicholas, he got Kris Kringle and rejected it as wrong: the customer’s husband is a lawyer and he’s already threatening lawsuit. Everyone’s in a panic, and everyone’s passing the blame around so fast, the potato will never cool down.
Jake defuses the situation by offering the offended couple the starring role in a new game show, featuring an ordinary couple trying various game shows (the idea takes off at the end, giving Jake an uncomfortable choice) but before that point we meet all the principle figures in and around the show and get an eyeful of their various neuroses, schticks and tightropes that each walk to enable them to function in this bizarre television world.
‘Who He?’ been running for thirty-nine weeks, successfully, but it has to be wary. Network producer Roy Audibon has his eye on the slot for one of his own productions, is threatening ‘Who He?’ as being ten points below its slot’s potential.
Mig Mason, the humourless, insecure vent, is denying any responsibility for the disaster and wants the telephone girl fired. His permanent entourage consists of one wife, three gagmen and his agent, Tooky Weems, a walking parasite without a human bone in him. Nor is producer Mel Grabinar exactly stable or reliable; hell, nobody in this world is.
Except perhaps Sam Cooper, the show’s rehearsal pianist: Jake’s flatmate and best friend. Sam’s a nice guy, thoughtful, kind, protective of Jake. But even he has a problem: Sam’s written a song, a potentially very successful song. Jake wants to promote it even to the extent of Sam becoming a performer on the New Year’s Eve show. Mig and Tooky want a piece of the song and Jake fights to protect Sam, even though Sam doesn’t want a battle…
Central to the story is a mysterious threat to ‘Who He?’, nasty, vicious, poison-pen letters that drip with filth and anger. The latest promises a killing on New Year’s Eve, and Jake sets out to find and neutralise the source of the threats. Along the way, he quickly encounters the beautiful, pacifistic, communist-sympathising Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Valentine: the pair fall in love in a relationship that runs through far too many changes and complications, most of these relating to Jake’s changes of mood, his combativeness against Gabby’s pathological urge to avoid fighting, but some of them are down to Gabby being Roy Audibon’s estranged wife.
So Lennox blunders and stumbles his way through a week of intense pursuit and multiple craziness, fighting for his show, his love, his friend and, though he only slowly becomes aware of it, himself. I don’t like giving away major spoilers, but it’s impossible to avoid giving away that the writer of these hatred filled letters is Jake himself, in drunken fugues during which his internal self-loathing comes to the surface.
All things come to a head at the New Year’s Eve show, when all the crazy, unbelievable yet oddly realistic characters come together. One goes over the edge and swings above everybody’s eyes, the sacrifice to madness: not merely Lennox’s own condition but the rampant madness of neurosis that is television at this time and the nerves of those who live with or within it.
For Jake there is a choice at the end. His put-up show to shut up the ordinary couple signs contracts, is a network winner. He has a piece of it again. He can go back into the rat race, free and clear, his problems wiped, his future back on track. There’s a condition to it though, a condition that Gabby will accept but it depends on Jake accepting it too, for the sake of everything he’s done and achieved. Or he can go it the hard way.
The Rat Race is a ferociously tackled, intense, complex, detailed book, driven by the same psychological urges and the same imbalances that characterised Bester’s two SF classics, the one before and the one after it. It depicted an unreal, but real society with the same forensic detail as the two classics, and like both those books, Bester convinces us that what we are seeing is real, despite it being a harder sell.
It’s now, as the author pointed out in 1984, a historical fiction, though I’m willing to bet that, in some aspects, the world of television hasn’t moved that far along from the things we see here.
One thing that I should bring up is that, throughout the book, Jake Lennox displays a virulent hatred towards gays – or fags as he generally calls them. Bester demonstrated in The Demolished Man a definite masculinity of attitude, and that runs through all of his writing. It’s at its worst in the anti-gay attitudes in this book, the arts – and television – being an area that attracts a reputedly higher proportion of gay interest than other professions.
To modern eyes, it’s unpleasant, sometimes loathsome, especially when it’s plain that it’s the author speaking through his character rather than describing a third party mindset. But it’s also of the times, and the only point at which it becomes germane to the story, Lennox is ignorant of the implications and it is the much more enlightened and sympathetic Gabby who takes charge, in a kind, fair but implacable manner that is entirely personal rather than dogmatic.
Otherwise, the book is so strong, and we do have to recognise when reading works that are over fifty years old that they come from a world where our attitudes didn’t hold. A spot of doublethink is often needed and this is one such.
Because it isn’t SF, most of Bester’s fans aren’t interested in The Rat Race, which is a shame. It is him from head to toe, written when he was at his peak, and it deserves attention and a better recognition than it achieves.

Alfred Bester: a Driver of Tigers – The Demolished Man


Alfred Bester published his first novel in 1953 under the title The Demolished Man. It became the first novel to win the Hugo Award for the Best SF Novel of the year and has been barely out-of-print ever since.
Bester wanted to call the book Demolition!, which, on reading the story, is a more appropriate title on a lineal level, but was talked out of it by his friend and editor Horace Gold. The Demolished Man first appeared in Gold’s Galaxy magazine, serialised in three parts starting in January 1952.
At that time, it began with a prologue, a sweeping account of the beginnings of things that would be prominent in the story itself. When the book saw print in 1953, this prologue had been cut (and some other, minor, elements tweaked). This was done for economic reasons: the publishers were a small house, paper restrictions still afflicted publishing, the prologue was detachable. All later editions followed the first and The Demolished Man‘s prologue vanished. I’m not aware of any editions that have reincorporated it, but fifty years later, the Prologue appeared in the paperback collection Re-Demolished, collected in 2000.
Re-Demolished also reprints Bester’s 1972 article on the writing of the novel, in which he recalls that the original idea behind the story came from Horace Gold and that the society that sprung from that notion was argued out in long, collaborative conversations.
That idea was unique at the time. The Demolished Man is a murder mystery, a crime story, transgression to investigation to conviction and Demolition. The twist is that the crime takes place against a society of telepaths, ESPers, peepers. How can a man commit murder when a peeper can discern his intention before he kills?
Bester, whose radio work was largely in crime stories, wrote the book as an Open Murder. There’s no patient, step-by-step detection that leads the Detective to reveal that the murder was carried out in the Ballroom by Miss Scarlet with the Blunt Instrument. We see all steps through the murderer’s own eyes, we know who, how, when, where but the one thing Bester withholds until the eleventh hour is why, because not even Ben Reich knows the real reason why his hatred leads him to kill Craye D’Courtney.
Reich and Powell, protagonist and antagonist, the relationship between them and the battle they engage in is the heart of this book. Reich’s the murderer, a vicious, relentless, amoral, dominant and personally charming man, Powell the cerebral, liberal, generous, welcoming yet relentless peeper First Class Prefect of Police who, despite Reich’s every effort to conceal his tracks, knows from the outset that Reich is a murderer and who is determined to bring him to justice, and to Demolition.
They’re opposites, locked in a struggle that only one can win, yet they like each other tremendously.
The story begins with a locking heads of rival empires, concerns built up over centuries by families: Monarch, headed by Ben Reich, is being slowly pushed to the wall by the D’Courtney Cartel. Reich’s growing desperate. He’s also being terrorised by recurring nightmares in which he flees with fear from The Man With No Face. Reich believes he has only two options. Lowering himself to sue for peace, he invites Craye D’Courtney to enter into an equal partnership, a merger. He expects D’Courtney to refuse: he has the upper hand, inexorably, why should he settle for 50% when he will eventually have all?
When D’Courtney refuses, it merely confirms Reich’s expectation that he must follow his only alternative: to murder D’Courtney.
The astute reader, at this point, turns back seven pages to the exclusive code Reich has employed, where Bester has planted a massive clue: D’Courtney’s response is Acceptance. Reich, a driven man, reads it as its opposite because he expects it, because subconsciously he wants it.
Reich dominates the first half of the book, laying his plans, suborning Gus Tate, a peeper First Class who’s already his psychiatrist, dragging in the ostracised Jerry Church, exiled from the esper community for one of Reich’s earlier schemes, setting up an innocuous chain of accidental events, including an atrocious musical mindworm, all of which take him closer and closer to his goal. What strikes the most is Reich’s conception of himself as a killer, a natural killer in a society that, thanks to the openness of minds, hasn’t suffered a deliberate killing in nearly seventy years.
Powell, who’ll take the dominant role in the second half of the book, as pursuer, is a complete contrast. He’s gentle, kind, outgoing, for reasons that Bester saves as a glorious epiphany at the very end. He’s liberal in every aspect of the word, to the point that he’s the only peeper on Earth prepared to share his mind with the disgraced, near-mad Jerry Church. He could be unrealistically perfect, indeed he almost is, despite the presence of an antic humour that has him spin elaborate fantasies with a straight face in his Dishonest Abe aspect.
But the best part of The Demolished Man is its encoding of a future in which a small but significant proportion of the population can read minds, to one degree or another. Esp is represented in italic conversations, speech in plain type, but the two forms are also distinguished by the extra informality, the irreverence the espers show to one another.
Bester also introduces tricks of typography to demonstrate the flexibility and artistry of the esper elite, layouts of words in patterns. He visualises the future by spelling certain names with typographical symbols: Samuel @kins, Duffy Wyg&, Jo ¼maine. He moves at speed through an elegant, poised future world that still contains desperate danger and filth in its criminal classes, the gimpsters who are always present.
In the end, things come together, as they must. Ben Reich is freed from suspicion, until the true nature of his hatred comes out, the subconscious hatred of illegitimate son for the father who abandoned him. The beautiful but catatonic Barbara D’Courtney, unexpected witness to her father’s murder, is the half-sister he can’t, psychologically, murder to cover his tracks. She recapitulates her childhood, fall in love with Powell, and he with her, but he has to marry a fellow-peeper, to extend the gene pool. But Barbara turns out to be latent.
And when Reich, horribly adrenalised by his victory, looks to change the world in his own image, change the balance of society, Powell proves to be strong enough to be the conduit for Mass Cathexis Measure, stripping Reich down to the ultimate solipsis.
Then it’s time for Demolition. Not death, of any form, but the breaking down of Reich’s personality, the excision of the aberrant aspects of his personality, and the rebuilding of a good, decent man on the bedrock of that intellect, that drive, that ingenuity. Why kill a man, waste all his abilities, when you can re-make him?
It’s the expression of hope, of belief in what mankind is and is consistently being, and Bester ends with an overt expression of wide-eyed faith in us: …there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart…
There’s a tremendous amount to enjoy and admire in The Demolished Man, but there’s still a lot to be questioning of. This is a very Fifties book, inescapably rooted in the mores of its time, for all that it’s set in the twenty-fourth century, and it’s a very Alfie Bester book. You may well ask what else it could be, but though Bester is a tremendous driving writer, his attitudes are utterly reflective of his time.
Bester was a very psychological writer, a deeply convinced Freudian. His most vivid characters are driven by compulsions that run their lives and override their conscious concerns. We’ve seen that in Ben Reich, but it’s an underlying factor throughout the book, which frequently dips into the psychological underpinnings of its various characters, to an extent that sometimes it may seem to be a paid promotion for Siggy and his ilk.
Reich’s the most blatant, and certainly the most objectionable. He’s basically a murderous bastard, selfish to the core, a deliverer or orders that he expects to have executed instantly. He’s callous and selfish and he wants the power-rush that comes with killing and getting away with it. Reich’s the model for corporate power, his own concerns, his overwhelming wealth and his insistence on always increasing it are all that matters. He might be an incarnation of our current Tory party indifference to those who are not filthy rich, and exist only to have their little taken and given to those who already have have have.
It’s already difficult to give any sympathy towards Reich, or recognise the charm he radiates, though this would have been an easier leap to make in the times that he reflects. But there’s a second, time-influenced factor to take into account, and that’s Reich’s masculinity. He’s the ultimate man, locked into the worst aspects of his gender, and his thoughts of what he can accomplish, if not hindered by the pettiness of modern society are far too often expressed in terms of rape.
Yes, the masculine elemental force is, in the early Fifties, still represented by the notion that He can have any woman he wants, not because they will fall for him but because He will simply take what he wants, irrespective of any notion that others may want something different. “My God, we could rape the Universe!”, he says.
I don’t want to start slating Bester too heavily on this score but many before me have pointed out that he isn’t at all feminist in his thinking. There’s an undercurrent of approval of Reich in this book and that goes for his attitudes. The four principle female roles in The Demolished Man are minor, secondary characters, none of whom is what you would necessarily call enriching.
Duffy Wyg& is a professional songwriter, an exuberant, expansive girl with an overt sexuality that remains naively schoolgirlish through, and who is perpetually rebuffed. She wants to be defiled – at one point she invites Reich to beat her up – but her overt eagerness for sex, which she expresses as fooling around, is put down as being too open and therefore unappealing. You can’t ‘conquer’ Duffy, not when she’s trying to drag you between the sheets.
Mary Noyes is in a similar bracket. She’s a Second Class peeper, she loves Powell distractedly, both emotionally and sexually, but whilst he treats her as a dear friend, she is sexless to him, and Bester takes us too far into Powell’s head for us to see her in her own right: snow, mint, taffeta.
Maria Beaumont, aka The Gilt Corpse, is a caricature of sex, inflated and thus self-neutered. She’s a party woman, surgically altered to be ‘pneumatic’ (and we all know what that means, don’t we?). Maria is a cartoon of the sexually-ideal Fifties woman, big-breasted, wide-hipped, slinky and ultimately and forever unreal. You can’t expect to get an erection for that.
And lastly, there’s Barbara D’Courtney. She bursts into the book as an interruption to, a witness to Reich murdering her father, before fleeing into the night. Unfortunately, Bester can’t resist introducing her naked, under a frosty nightgown that she promptly leaves behind (an adult version of Cinderella?). She spends most of the book catatonic or in a child-like state, with little adult standing. And, as the hero’s love interest, whom he rescues, damsel-in-distress, she is blonde and beautiful and (naturally) stacked.
All these things are very obvious, and collectively they undercut not just The Demolished Man but other books in Bester’s oeuvre, as we shall see. Nevertheless, the book was a tremendous success at the time, and astonishingly influential, even to the present day.
Bester’s next novel was, however, to be astonishingly obscure.

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.

You’re Recommending What?!


eBay has gone off its head. Its algorithms have cracked.

How else can you explain the home page I have just opened? Last night, in preparation for another chronological readthrough/blog series, I rebought cheaply a couple of books by the late, great SF author, Alfred Bester. The latter of these was Golem 100, a fast-paced, aggressive prefiguration of cyberpunk, a roller-coaster book.

Today, based on my purchase of this SF novel, eBay’s recommendations based thereupon are: The Experts Guide to the Triathlon, A Complete Guide to Scottish Country Dancing and Enciclopedieto de Cinio. This appears to be an Encyclopedia of, or probably in, Esperanto.

What the hell?