Wed
Dec 18 2013 8:00am

The Man Who Demolished Boring Science Fiction: Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester art by David A. JohnsonThinking about telepaths when telepaths are in the room is hard because they know you’re thinking about them. This is why—on most days—I’m glad I never actually had the chance to meet science fiction legend Alfred Bester, because my thoughts about him would have been disgustingly gushing and I’m sure he would have heard those thoughts because he was likely a real deal telepath and I would have been embarrassed. I’m kidding. I’m super sad I didn’t get to meet him! (But he was probably a real telepath.)

Today would have been Bester’s 101st birthday. He won the first Hugo award for a novel ever, and made everything in SF way more fun. Here’s why he’s still the best.

Though Bester isn’t breaking any records for number of novels written or short stories published, he does reign supreme in terms of influence of those who are hardcore science fiction readers. If you want to blow someone’s mind in terms of a novel that is booth baffling and wonderful at the same time, it doesn’t get much better than The Stars My Destination. By seemingly mashing-up the aesthetic of golden age science fiction with a literary epic, plus comic-book super-powers, it is emblematic of Bester’s tendencies to surprise. Fronted by an anti-hero named Gully Foyle, The Stars My Destination is also notable for being a kind of science fiction pastiche of The Count of Monte Cristo, assuming Alexander Dumas was a crazy person driven into a synesthesia-laden mental breakdown precipitated by the ability to accidentally teleport across vast regions of space. (Spoiler alert: something like this, sans Dumas, may actually happen in the novel.)

But it’s probably in the influence on how science fiction literature approaches telepaths where Alfred Bester’s true lasting impact exists. In The Demolished Man, Bester depicts a future world where crime is outrageously difficult to commit owing to the existence of an efficient network of telepaths or ‘espers.’ How a person would commit a crime in such a world is not only the central theme, but also the specific plot of the novel, which eventually earned it the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953, the first book ever to receive the award. Part of the reason this book was probably so successful and still adamantly recommended by people like me is the totally detailed and convincing way in which a society is changed by one science fiction element, in this case, telepaths. In fact, Bester’s rules for telepaths are probably just as influential as Asimov’s laws or robotics; everyone from Harlan Ellison to Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski cribs from Bester when it comes to the machinations of their espers. The latter even named Walter Koenig’s fictional reoccurring B5 conniving baddie after the author. (Which was super-confusing for my teenage self considering Koenig played a guy named Chekov on Star Trek. Wait. Chekhov? Or Chekov? Guy from Star Trek writes stories? Walter Koenig played two fictional characters with names kind of borrowed from writers?)

Though lauded for those two famous novels (his other ones like The Computer Connection and Rat Race are less good, and less talked about) it’s in his short fiction where I find Bester to be the most readable and memorable. This era of science fiction tends to be thought of as stuffy, or at the very least, old fashioned, but the short stories in Bester’s collection The Dark Side of the Earth are anything but. My favorite of these is probably as story called, innocently enough, “Out of This World.” Here, a man working in an office building in 1950s Manhattan gets a phone call accidentally wired to his desk which turns out to be a wrong number. The young woman calls back again, saying she was connected again on accident to his line. From her end, she’s dialing the right number, and neither party can figure out why they keep getting connected. After both chalk up the problem to literal crossed wires (of the switchboard kind!) they agree to meet for lunch in the city, but never find each other.

If you’re expecting Rod Serling to step out and explain all of this to you at some point, you should, because the subtle Twilight Zone-esque twist is this: she’s from an alternate universe, one where the layout of Manhattan is very different owing specifically to events of a certain World War going a different way her dimension than they went in ours. “Out of this World” is both charming and chilling, original and funny, and most of all, demonstrates what Bester is a master of, making a science fiction premise seem as smooth as any other fiction convention. In short, Bester didn’t pretend like science fiction was weird, instead he played his science fiction the way he clearly thought about it: like it was cool.

The primary rule of being cool is that you have to actually be cool to be cool. You can’t fake coolness, which is the main reason why I’d never want to meet a real, telepathic Alfred Bester. He’d be on to me immediately as a total phony trying to play it cool about being in his presence. In this universe, Alfred Bester’s telepaths would have created a world in which uncool people don’t exist, routing them out through mind-reading. Which is where I would be screwed.

Though I never met him, nor am I old enough to remember him when he was really alive, I miss him. Thanks for everything you gave us, Alfie!

 


Ryan Britt is a long-time contributor to Tor.com.

12 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Gully Foyle is my name
& Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination.
Simon Hedge
2. SimonH
A really great tribute. Thanks for posting it.
Colin Bell
3. SchuylerH
I'm glad the short fiction was brought up. "Fondly Farenheit" is a typically irreverent take on Asimovian hard SF but my favorite is still the classic "5,271,009".
ChrisHeinz
4. ChrisHeinz
I can't believe that "The Stars My Destination" has never been made into a movie. Published in 1957, it still has edge. I could never figure who would play Gully Foyle tho, then realized that Russell Crowe would have been perfect -- except he's too old now.
Alan Brown
5. AlanBrown
I will never forget picking up an F&SF anthology in college, and reading 5,271,009. It blew me away, and I went out searching for more by this Bester guy. Having grown up in a very Astounding/Analog oriented household, this kind of surrealistic romp was new to me.
The thing I always liked about Bester's work is how much fun he seemed to be having with his writing. There is a joyfulness that shines through everything he wrote, no matter how dark the subject matter.
I wish I could have met him, too. I am sure that the conversation would have been memorable.
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@5: The story of Bester meeting a Dianetics-obssessed John W. Campbell always makes me laugh...
Steve Oerkfitz
7. Steve Oerkfitz
The Stars My Destination still holds up after 55 years. I've read it probably 4 or 5 times over the years.
Erik Harrison
8. ErikHarrison
In reponse to this very post, I read "The Stars My Destination" today for the first time. I am sad it took me this long to finally read Alred Bester. Holy shit.
Robert Barrett
9. rwb
Bester had great ideas, but what really set him apart from his contemporaries was his prose style, IMO. You can actually take pleasure in his sentences as sentences.
Bruce Arthurs
10. Bruce-Arthurs
I'm old enough, and lucky enough, that I did meet Alfred Bester, at the 1974 Balticon (IIRC) that marked his return to the SF field after a decade or so as a travel magazine editor. He was a world-class raconteur, coming across as extremely intelligent and very sophisticated. Like a lot of his writing.
ChrisHeinz
11. Chuck Migg
A great piece. Though it was the 100th anniversary of Bester's birth, and I'm fairly certain the illustration, while terrific, isn't of Alfie. He wasn't bald(ing), for one, and almost always wore glasses.
ChrisHeinz
12. SarahH
Alexander Dumas is the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, not a character in the novel. The main character is Edmond Dantes, aka The Count of Monte Cristo, hence why it's called The Count of Monte Cristo. /facepalm

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