Alfred Bester is one of those authors that I’ve been aware of for a long time, but who never quite made it onto my To Read List: His name would come up in a discussion or article, but my interest was never quite piqued enough, or a copy of the book never found its way in front of my eyes in a timely fashion, and he would sink back into the mental noise of my consciousness.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, the stars aligned themselves in the heavens, Bester again came to my attention, and – lo and behold – I discovered used copies of The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man on the shelves of Uncle Hugo’s here in Minneapolis, MN.
Wow. I’ve been missing out.
Three things about Bester stand out to me:
First, his use of what I must call, for lack of a better term, casual detail. Bester will seamlessly drop a staggeringly original idea into a paragraph, casually passing it by as if it were no more remarkable than the mention of an automobile in a novel of today. The effect is that of a novel written in the far future, not merely taking place there. It’s a technique which was pioneered by Heinlein, but Bester presents it in a perfected form.
Second, the fact that these are – at their core – incredibly powerful character dramas. They have all the strength and pathos of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, while simultaneously being driven by a fast-paced, tautly-plotted action-adventure. The result is a reading experience which is not only compelling and addictive, but tremendously powerful. The depth with which the characters are drawn, and the sheer emotional extremity of their circumstance, leaves a lasting impression on your mind and soul.
Finally, the astonishing originality and scope of his ideas. Unlike this contemporaries, Bester is not content to simply choose one or two or ten different ideas with which to build his future. Instead, he uses dozens, spinning them out one after another in an incredibly dense, breath-taking vista. Nor is his cascade a random cornucopia of creativity: Each idea is a facet painstakingly set within an imagined epoch, carefully revealed not only to deepen the setting, but to further the story.
To see this depth and mastery in a piece of 1950s science fiction is astonishing. Bester was incredibly ahead of his time. It would take nearly a decade after the publication of The Stars My Destination before science fiction, as a field, began tentatively taking steps to explore in the directions Bester had already intuitively mapped out. It would take nearly thirty years before the genre showed serious signs of actually catching up to Bester, and even today – nearly fifty years after its publication – The Stars My Destination continues to exist on the cutting edge.
In fact, if I didn’t already know who Alfred Bester was, I would have been terribly excited at discovering a new, cutting edge author after finishing The Stars My Destination. It is the only novel from the 1950’s that I feel could have been written yesterday: The setting reads like a post-cyberpunk novel, and the main character reads like a protagonist from Iain Banks or Stephen Donaldson.
That’s an incredible accomplishment. And the result are books which are exciting to read in any case, and shockingly revelatory when read within their historical context.
After reading these books, one is left to wonder what science fiction would have been like if Bester hadn’t left the field shortly after the publication of The Stars My Destination in 1956. I detect a definite pre-Bester vs. post-Bester watershed in the genre, and I think that if one were to carefully trace out the earliest whispers of the New Wave movement, one would find those whispers firmly rooted in the soil of Bester’s work. Would Bester’s continued work in the field, therefore, have quickened that development? Would Bester have served as a catalyst for a revolution? And, if so, how would that revolution have differed from the one Harlan Ellison catalyzed with Dangerous Visions?
Unfortunately, such ponderings are lost to history – just as Bester was lost to Holiday magazine for the better part of two decades. Perhaps it is an alternate history tale for Michael Burstein to tell.
I have it on Good Authority(TM) that the books Bester wrote upon returning to the SF field in the 1970’s do not compare with these early masterpieces. That’s unfortunate. I plan to give them a shot at some point, anyway, starting with The Computer Connection (since that turned up on the used shelf recently, too).
THE STARS MY DESTINATION: A+
HE DEMOLISHED MAN: A+
Published: 1956 / 1953
Publisher: Vintage Books
Cover Price: $12.00
ISBNs: 0679767800 / 0679767819