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Alfred Bester


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Alfred Bester did not write many books, but the stuff he wrote in the 50s was so enjoyable and ground-breaking that his influence can be traced in many great works of SF today. "The Demolished Man" and "Tiger! Tiger!" are both tour-de-force masterpieces, and his short stories are great examples of fast-paced & intelligent entertainment.

"5,271,009"
(also as "The Starcomber")
© F&SF. Mar 1954
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool sf story

"Adam and No Eve"
© Astounding Stories, Sep 1941
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool apocalyptic sf story
--/ wonder award: last man

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"The Computer Connection" (nv)
(also as "The Indian Giver" and "Extro")
© Analog, Nov 1974 - Jan 1975
Berkley Putnam, 1975
--novel : 1975 Nebula
--novel : 1976 Hugo
--/ fourth place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ style award

This is a toughie - not because this isn’t a great book, or that it’s hard to define - but because it’s one of my all-time favorites. You know: ‘stuck on a desert island with only three books’ kind of favorite. That’s the tough, you see - I know why it’s a great book, the trick is trying to find a way to tell you, out there, how good it really is.

So ... let’s start with the basics: Alfred Bester, the legend. Winner of the first Hugo for "The Demolished Man", established Grand Master of SF with such ground breakers as "Fondly Fahrenheit", "The Stars My Destination", and - later - with "The Deceivers" and (you either loved it or hated it) "Golem 100". Bester is also a legend in the radio and comic world, having worked on scripts for Charley Chan, The Shadow, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern - in fact the Lantern Oath ("In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight, let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light") is Bester’s. Alfred was the original writer’s writer: he wrote for everyone, everywhere - but it’s his SF that he’s most known for.

For the longest time, the only place you could find Bester’s stuff was in the dusty halls of used book shops. Now you can pick up some of his best: "The Demolished Man", "The Stars My Destination", "Virtual Unrealities" (a collection of his marvelous short stories), "The Computer Connection", and even the book he left unfinished (and Roger Zelazny completed), "Psychoshop".

Even though his books are available it’s still sad that people don’t know Bester. Sigh. It’s especially disappointing when I hear people praise the stylistic endeavors of certain popular SF writers - when Bester blew them all away decades ago. As Harlan Ellison correctly states in his introduction to the "Computer Connection": “Bester was the mountain, all the rest of us merely climbers toward that peak.”

So what is it about Bester that just absolutely delights me? Well, man, you just have to be in the groove, capiche? You gotta plug in and ride the crazyhouse currents. Y? Y! Reading a Bester book is a trip, a stroboscopic madhouse of ideas, brilliant concepts, delightful characters, crackling language, and just plain fun. Now I don’t mean the kind of empty-headed fun you get nowadays - no, Bester’s fun is multi-language word play, obscure (but still understandable) references, and absolutely incredible, mind-boggling inventiveness.

Take, for example, "The Computer Connection" (also called "Extro" or "The Indian Giver"). In one blistering romp we have immortality, time-travel, cyberpunk (long before Gibson was born or computers got personal), cloning, an Amerinds nation in the toxic dump that was Lake Erie, characters like the nymphet Fee-5 Graumans Chinese (so named because she was born in the fifth row of the theater and is kinda of snotty about it), Dr. Sequoya Guess, a trip to Titan, a merging of man and computer, and, and, and ... overload!

Our hero is one Ned Curzon; a delightful fellow who’d been transformed into an immortal through an strange accident involving the explosive destruction of Krakatoa, and a member of an extended family of same eternal and eccentric folks: Nemo, Herb Wells, The Syndicate, Hillel the Jew, Borgia, Jacy (yes, that J.C.), Sam Pepys (not their realsies, you understand, just their ‘nom de years’). Ned, it seems, has been nicknamed Guigol (Guig for short), for his attempts to indoctrinate other people into their unique group. The problem, you see, is that to become immortal you have to go through a lot of terror and pain - and a lot of folks just don’t make it. Guigol as in Grand Guigol.

Then, right out of left field, the Group has a new member, the brilliant Amerid scientist Dr. Sequoya Guess - but an unforeseen side effect slipped into the immortality process as well, a side effect that has linked Guess to the Extro, the planet-wide system of intelligent machines and has given him incredible abilities and a lethal intent towards Guig and the members of his delightful group. As the back cover puts it: so how do you kill an immortal?

Stop, wait - I’ve sinned: you can’t describe a Bester book like you’d give a pitch for a block-buster flick. His ideas are mercurial: slippery and brilliant. Each page - no, each paragraph - sparkles with insane wit and crackling imagination. Now that trick - pyrokinetic writing - isn’t all that hard, but the miracle is that when Bester does this he also makes you care for these people. When characters get hurt, die, you might have only known them for a few lines, a few pages but - damnit - you feel the tears start. You really want to know these people, this glorious family of immortals and the various other folks that dance and cavort in any of Bester’s books. Bester was never a ‘hard’ SF writer - his science is as slippery and quick as his style - but then you don’t read his books to see if he crossed all his t’s or dotted his i’s ... no, you read Bester to take a wondrous trip, to be told a story by one of the few true masters of science fiction, of modern literature.

Well, I tried folks - tried my ever-lovin’ darndest to pin down the beautiful brilliance of Alfred Bester. I gave it my best shot, trying to capsulize the effervescent, freeze-frame lightning. I guess there’s only one way to find out if I succeeded or not: go out - now - and pick up a copy of any of his books and see. It’s more than worth it.
Review by author M. Christian

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"The Dark Side Of The Earth" (coll)
© 1964, Ballantine
--/ third place sf collection
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award


"The Demolished Man" (nv)
© Galaxy, Jan 1952
novel: Shasta, 1953
--novel : 1953 Hugo W
--fiction : 1954 International Fantasy
--all time novel : 1975 Locus /14
--all time sf novel : 1987 Locus /18
--sf novel : 1998 Locus /22
--all time sf novel : 1987 Locus All-Time Poll /18 (tie)
--sf novel: 1998 Locus All-Time Poll /22

--/ second place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award


"The Devil's Invention"
(also as "Oddy and Id")
© Astounding, Aug 1950
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool f story

"The Die-Hard"
© Starburst, 1958
(russ. as "Starik")

"Disappearing Act"
© Star SF Stories # 2, 1953
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool sf story

"The Flowered Thundermug"
© The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964
An Alfred Bester Omnibus, 1967

"Fondly Fahrenheit"
© F&SF, Aug 1954
Starburst, 1958
--novelette : 1999 Locus All-Time Poll /4
--/ third place sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ style award
--/ adventure award
--/ idea award


"Galatea Galante The Perfect Popsy"
© OMNI, Apr 1979
--novelette : 1980 Locus /5
--/ cool sf story

"Hobson's Choice"
© F&SF, Aug 1952
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool sf story

"Horace, Galaxyca" (nf)
© Galaxy: An Anthology, 1980

"The Men Who Murdered Mohammed"
© F&SF, Oct 1958
The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964
--short story : 1959 Hugo
--/ third place time sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award


"Ms. Found in a Champagne Bottle"
© Status, 1968
Starlight, 1976
--/ cool sf story
--/ idea award
--/ humour award


"Oddy and Id"
(also as "The Devil's Invention")
© Astounding, Aug 1950
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool f story

"Of Time and Third Avenue"
© F&SF, Oct 1951
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool sf story

"Out of This World"
© The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964
An Alfred Bester Omnibus, 1967
--/ cool sf story
--/ wonder award

"The Pi Man"
© F&SF, Oct 1959
The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964
Star Light, Star Bright, 1976
(revised version)
--short fiction : 1960 Hugo
--/ fourth place time sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award


"The Probable Man"
© Astounding, Jul 1941
--/ cool sf story

"The Roller Coaster"
© Fantastic, May 1953
Starburst, 1958

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"Star Light, Star Bright"
© F&SF, Jul 1953
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool sf story

A group of government officials vs. group of little children. Each child is reported to have a unique ability to create marvelous technical gadgets - And there is one kid who quietly does absolutely nothing...wishing...
review: 04-Jul-06 (read in 1986)

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"Starburst" (coll)
© Signet Books, 1958
--/ cool sf collection
--/ wonder award

"The Starcomber"
(also as "5,271,009")
© F&SF. Mar 1954
Starburst, 1958
--/ cool sf story

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"The Stars My Destination" (nv)
(revised from "Tiger! Tiger!")
© Galaxy, Oct 1956
novel: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1956
--all time novel : 1975 Locus /7
--all time sf novel : 1987 Locus /10
--hall of fame : 1988 Prometheus W
--sf novel : 1998 Locus /6

--/ second place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award


Reading Alfred Bester makes me wonder what the definition of a "genius" really is. How could one writer so transcend the boundaries of a genre that his fiction reads better than any bestseller today? There are literary talents out there who are excited about writing new and unconventional stuff, but in terms of reader's experience much of their output is often unreadable. And here is this Bester, who "bested" all others while writing in the 50s, in the popular market for the ready news-stand consumption - and yet he single-handedly created the cyberpunk genre (before William Gibson made it obvious), and had given the public the taste of what Philip K. Dick fiction would be like in a few years. If his "The Demolished Man" (1952) novel burned through the brains of the majority of active thinkers and raised the bar so high for ALL writers that they could only willfully gaze upon it and go smoke another cigarette in despair - then "The Stars My Destination" simply blew all the bars and barriers into an open space... telling everyone simply that "stars" are indeed Alfred Bester's destination.

And yet the writing here is so seemingly effortless, so playfully indifferent - who cares how this novel would be received? - Alfred Bester just smiles and puts in another sci-fi pyrotechnic that readers would adore and writers would emulate (much like the case with the best of Philip K. Dick's fiction). It is weird, however, that this book did not win any major awards, not even a Retro Hugo!.. - so go find the good old 50s paperback copy and nail it to the judges panel (and another copy to a writing workshop's billboard, while you're at it). Alfred Bester knew how to write intelligent AND exciting stuff in the 50s (though the quality of his output slightly declined later), any or all critics be damned.

It is also with great trepidation that we hear about the movie rights being purchased for this ground-breaking work. More power to them, but I think I'd rather go and re-read the book. "Tiger! Tiger!" (the book's original title) still makes very compelling today. Its "jaunty" and visual narrative reveals much deeper questions and ideas - for example, an underlying conflict between "ruthless" and "irresistible" qualities of intellect, or the discussion of what it means to be a truly liberated individual - any of that could prove to be more intense than the current cinema producers can handle.

Read an excellent review of this novel at Infinity Plus, written by Adam Roberts, who himself writes wonderfully hyper-active and intelligent SF. Plus Wiki has a good summary of the plot.
review: 07-Sep-07 (read in 1996)

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"They Don't Make Life Like They Used To"
© F&SF, Oct 1963
The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964
--/ fourth place sf story
--/ wonder award

"Tiger! Tiger!" (nv)
(also as "The Stars My Destination")
© Sidgwick & Jackson, 1956
--/ second place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award


"Time Is the Traitor"
© F&SF, Sep 1953
The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964
--/ third place time sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award


"Travel Diary"
© Starburst, 1958

"Will You Wait?"
© F&SF, Mar 1959
The Dark Side of the Earth, 1964
--/ fourth place time sf story
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award


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"SF&F Reading Experience" is part of "Dark Roasted Blend / Thrilling Wonder" family of sites. We try to highlight the most entertaining and rewarding science fiction and fantasy, with emphasis on memorable reader experience, not necessarily general acceptance by the critics. Have fun, and delve into our extensive ratings and reviews!

Most reviews are written by Avi Abrams, unless otherwise noted. Reviews also appear on our unique historical retrospective page Wonder Timeline of Science Fiction. Feel free to submit your own review, if a particular story is not listed here.


All major OFFICIAL AWARDS are highlighted in BLUE
("winner" has a letter "W" by it, otherwise it is a runner-up only)

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--/ first place :
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--/ cool : (equal to fifth place)
ALL "BEST OF" LISTS ARE LOCATED HERE

These awards are given in the following categories:
- novel :
- series :
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Also, there are our personal STYLE / GENRE SPECIFIC AWARDS. These reflect the story's content and the lasting impression on the reader:

--/ wonder award
sense-of-wonder, "visual intensity" and inventiveness

--/ idea award
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--/ adventure award
exhilarating plot, excitement / action

--/ style award
outstanding literary qualities, inimitable style

--/ romance award
intense and beautiful love / relationships

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