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1956 - Year in SF&F: October

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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.

Alfred Bester
"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 for very compelling reading today. Its "jaunty" and visual narrative reveals quite a few deeper questions and ideas - for example, an underlying conflict between "ruthless" and "irresistible" qualities of (superior) 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)


Jack Vance
"To Live Forever" (nv)

© 1956, Ballantine Books
--/ fourth place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ idea award

This was the first full-length novel for Jack Vance, published by the prestigious Ballantine company, with a neat Richard Powers cover. It deals with the fascinating subject of achieving immortality before the individuals (and the decadent society) are ready for it. Something desirable and (almost) holy turns into a nightmare of Dante's proportions, where every individual must play the "merit" game, to advance in the "works" system - which of course is corrupt and totalitarian in nature. Plus, those who fail to play the game are euthanized - quite spooky and daring social extrapolation stuff for 1956, bringing to mind the main thesis of comunism: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need". It does sound like the opposite of "works" system, but we all know it's not the "grace" system either. Nick Gevers said it best: "(the novel) tells in sumptuous claustrophobic detail just how alien--and alienated--a human society might become, portraying a mighty far-future city state driven by absolute standards of meritocracy turning against itself in hysteria and bloodshed"

Besides interesting idea developments, this book boasts wonderfully lively descriptions of a future urban environment. This is Jack Vance at the top of his form, building visual vistas of futuristic skyscrapers and sky highways. Soaring architecture almost reflects the main character's strive for the lofty heights of immortality. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even if I was spooked by its cold and uncaring dystopian society. Highly recommended.
review: 01-Feb-08 (read in 2006)


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Jack Williamson's "Legion of Space" Series

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