Haven’t read Alfred Bester’s 50s sci-fi? Then read it – here’s why

Alfred Bester The Stars My Destination Galaxy

The Stars My Destination was serialised in Galaxy.

Alfred Bester: less and less of a household name. Acclaimed though his two first sci-fi novels were in their time, I seldom meet people my age who’ve heard of these, or who’ve read them, at any rate. Yet the novels – The Demolished Man, published 1953, and The Stars My Destination, published in 1956 – are not only key developments in science fiction’s history, but are compelling works of literature which have retained at least some of their relevance. (Bester carried on numerous careers besides that of a novelist – including comic-book writer, radio scriptwriter, and journalist – and after this pair he published no more sci-fi novels for almost two decades, before producing some not-so-influential works starting in the middle seventies.)

The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination each feature their own one main radical advance in human ability; in each case an advance which is sci-fi ostensibly, though it in fact borders on fantasy. In The Demolished Man this is telepathy, while in The Stars My Destination it’s teleportation through mental effort alone (both developments which have had extensive impacts on their respective societies). The Demolished Man shows us the efforts of a wealthy antihero, owner of a successful company, to succeed at murder in a world in which his thoughts are read frequently. The Stars My Destination has an antihero too, an initially uncivilized one; he’s driven by a long search for revenge to increase his knowledge, rising above the quest which impelled him in the first place. As he states: ‘I went beyond simplicity. I turned myself into a thinking creature.’

Though Bester’s novels predate the New Wave and cyberpunk movements within science fiction, they contain elements of both of these. These aspects are particularly apparent in The Stars My Destination (alternative title Tiger! Tiger!, incidentally). Indeed, I’d consider this second work to be in most respects the more developed of the two. New Wave sci-fi left behind the pulp origins of the genre, being characterised by its literary and frequently experimental quality and often also by its political sensibility. The Stars My Destination’s visual experiments with typed text to depict synesthesia, bordering on shape poetry, are especially noteworthy; so also is its social point, underlined by its conclusion, with the protagonist putting power in the hands of the people in a most literal sense. And in terms of Bester’s influence on the cyberpunk movement, Neil Gaiman observes in his introduction that The Stars My Destination ‘contains such cheerfully protocyber elements as multinational corporate intrigue; a dangerous, mysterious, hyperscientific McGuffin (PyrE); an amoral hero…’

Of course, the novels have dated to some degree. The New Wave and classic-cyberpunk elements which made these books so ahead of their time have themselves dated by the present day, and this is perhaps applicable to cyberpunk particularly. And progressive as the novels are in some of their political attitudes, they remain rather stuck in the 50s in other senses; I refer especially to the female characters, who at least in The Demolished Man suffer from a certain two-dimensionaity and ineffectuality. This work’s three main women are ‘the virgin seductress’ Duffy Wyg&, who follows after antihero Reich with such invitiations as ‘Punch me around a little’; Police Prefect Powell’s companion Mary Noyes, who follows after him professing her adoration and pleading for marriage; and lastly Barbara D’Courtney, whose love-at-first-sight relationship with Powell strains the credulity, in view of her childlike half-catatonic condition at the time (she calls Powell ‘Dada’ mostly).

But although in some aspects these books show their age, they remain worth reading – for their historical significance of course, but not for that alone. In particular, the antiheroes at these works’ centres still fascinate; they are the type of characters who fascinate eternally. To quote Gaiman on The Stars My Destination once more: ‘Gully Foyle, the obsessive protagonist who dominates every page of the tale, has not dated a moment.’ And I’d recommend The Stars My Destination, at any rate – to sci-fi fans, and more than that to readers out there generally.

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One thought on “Haven’t read Alfred Bester’s 50s sci-fi? Then read it – here’s why

  1. Have you read Alfred Bester’s 1954 short story “Fondly Fahrenheit”? It is the only thing of his that I have read, and it stayed with me for the rest of my life, though I have never been able to pin down the reason. I read it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame when I was about 13, which I had borrowed from my musty little one-room local suburban library on the edge of Adelaide. I was so intrigued by the story that I laboriously typed out a copy to keep before returning the library book, and I still have that copy, with lots of typing mistakes, 40 years later. I read most of my science fiction in my teens and early twenties and I never saw another Alfred Bester book in a bookshop; I didn’t realise how important he was until I read your post.

    Looking at the story now I see that it feels like a piece of (possibly unintentional) retrofuturism, and that may be what I liked about it. There are references to guns, walkie-talkies, travelling in spaceships that feel like 1950s ocean liners, and the bit I like most – landing, after an interstellar space voyage, at “Croydon Field” (shades of the Croydon Airport of the 1930s!) and continuing the story in a wintry London, whose townscape is described as though it has not changed since the mid-20th century. (I don’t think Bester can have been very familiar with London. At one point he has the characters walking from Trafalgar Square along the Strand “towards Soho”. But he seems to delight in conjuring up a traditional, almost literary vision of London which seems totally and weirdly disconnected from the earlier scenes on other planets.)

    The theme of the story – the psychological symbiosis and mutual psychopathic degeneration of an android and its owner – feels unconvincing and contrived to me, yet the language and tone of the narrative are so original and hypnotic, and the settings so skilfully summoned up in a few words, that I never forgot this story. I’ve been surprised, but pleased, to learn that Bester, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” itself, have had a strong effect on others besides me – on more people than I ever realised.

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