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 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.