Thinking 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.