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.

The House of Shattered Wings

Aliette de Bodard has been in the upper ranks of speculative-fiction writers for a while, having claimed the Nebula Award a couple of times. However, her most recent novel – The House of Shattered Wings – was the first introduction to this author’s work for me.

De Bodard’s novel is set in Paris, in a world that’s ruled by fallen angels; thanks to their residual magic these Fallen have come to constitute an aristocracy. They run almost all of the numerous Houses around which the city’s feudal society revolves. It was these Houses which brought about the recent war that’s left Paris in ruins, left areas strewn ‘with spells… primed and ready to explode in your face, with the ghosts and the hauntings and the odor of death that still hung like fog over the wrecks of counters and the faded posters for garments and perfumes from another, more innocent age.’ The book concerns a mysterious curse causing deaths within House Silverspires. In addition to House head Selene, it focuses on the junkie alchemist Madeleine, the naive newly-Fallen Isabelle, and most of all an immortal loner who comes not from Christian mythology but from Eastern mythology.

One of the novel’s strengths is its sense of history. The best fantasy worlds tend to be those which are conceived of temporally as well as spatially. Details of the past are woven into this work’s present, adding to the depth of the story considerably. Customs and traditions; the war’s still-felt impact; the characters who dominate the book despite being long-gone, notably the original founder of House Silverspires – the first of the Fallen, Morningstar (Lucifer). The past’s weight presses upon those alive, finding its outlet in the murderous curse affecting Silverspires. The explicit parallel that’s drawn with Aeschylus’s ancient tragedy The Oresteia, which shows the generations of cyclical strife within the House of Atreus, is an apt one.

The House of Shattered Wings is vast in scope, many members of its extensive cast having their own subplots and backstories. Yet de Bodard balances the different perspectives, and the different storylines, most professionally. Though her work proceeds at a stately pace, it holds the attention consistently, can border on the unputdownable. This is a book composed with skill and care; while responses to it are of course a matter of taste, there’s the incontrovertible impression that it achieves what it sets out to achieve.

This novel is one of power, and of history, and of the power of history. It’s an atmospheric tale, due more to its abundance of contextual detail than to an abundance of sensual detail (for in fact its descriptions tend to be done with broad brushstrokes thanks to its scale). Assuming that its concept sounds like something you’re into – a setting of loss and ruined splendour and decadence, in which unfolds a slow multi-layered mystery story – be assured that this concept is executed with competence. De Bodard’s prose style’s not overly remarkable, but it gets the job done; and her command of plotting really is commendable, demonstrating why she’s become acclaimed among the speculative-fiction authors of today.

Zoo City: enter a Johannesburg filled with Pullman-esque familiars and Gibsonian mystery

The genres of sci-fi and fantasy as we know them today had their main origins in Europe and America; they still remain dominated by Westerners, and for that matter by men too. Which makes Zoo City, an urban fantasy set in author Lauren Beukes’s homeland South Africa, a bit of a change. In recent years Beukes has received critical praise both for this novel and for other works, notably Moxyland (her previous book) and The Shining Girls (her subsequent one). Lately I got around to giving Zoo City a go.

Zoo City takes place in an alternate history; in this reality animal companions are linked to humans spiritually. An idea that’s not quite unique, since Philip Pullman did it already. In Beukes’s version, animals only attach themselves to those humans responsible for the loss of another person’s life. Inevitably, this has led to much discrimination being directed at these ‘animalled’ by other people. The details and the implications of the phenomenon are worked into the book convincingly, giving much depth to the setting, a nice touch being the multimedia element added by excerpts from fictional articles, websites, etc. In fact the book’s world as a whole, in terms of other aspects as well as its spec-fic ones, is brought to life compellingly – the shamans and street-vendors, the descriptions and conversations, everything working to provide a real sense of place. Both the fantasy details and the real-world details contribute to the impression of a problematically stratified society. It brings to mind District 9‘s use of the South African location for its real-life parallels with that film’s depiction of anti-extraterrestrial intolerance.

In terms of plot, Zoo City‘s a mystery story revolving around a child pop-star’s disappearance. That said, it’s no tight slick thriller; in honesty, this sprawling tale withholds secrets less through clever twists than by digressing into numerous subplots while sitting on info as long as possible. Some scenes, particularly the climactic one, also seem a little contrived and melodramatic to me. I’m more impressed by some of the novel’s less significant passages, those smaller parts where Beukes uses her keen observations to create character or atmosphere, than I am by the try-hard feel of its over-the-top set-pieces.

Whatever else it is, Zoo City‘s something a bit out of the ordinary. And in some respects, such as its creation of its setting, it’s really first-rate. It has some flaws common to works written early in novelists’ careers, is sometimes a bit of a mess, but it’s a fun read on the whole. Yes – a loud, messy, fun story.

Slipstream, weird fiction, & cities & cities: genres between genres

Magic realism, slipstream fiction, weird fiction, New Weird fiction. Confused as to what exactly these are, or at least as to what exactly the differences between them are? If not, if you have shelves stacked with VanderMeer and Miéville, then perhaps you’re not in need of this article. But the answer’s doubtless a yes for a lot of people out there, for these words were invented to define works which resist definition; they’re less names of genres than efforts to name what falls outside the genres.

To be honest, there’s heaps of overlap between the terms I’ve used above. For example, I mentioned M. John Harrison’s Signs of Life in a recent article. It combines a realistic setting with unexplained, or half-explained, elements reminiscent of sci-fi and fantasy. I described it as magic realist, but I could make a case for most of the other terms above too. It might be helpful to think of magic realism as literary fiction with some speculative fiction in there, and of slipstream and weird fiction as the reverse. Notwithstanding hard-to-place books like Signs of Life, much magic realism’s clearly on mainstream / lit-fic’s side of the line, and doesn’t count as slipstream fiction or as weird fiction at the same time. Consider the Latin American magic realists, from Gabriel García Márquez to Laura Esquivel, or consider the works of Angela Carter. In fact, I’ll take Angela Carter’s Wise Children as an instance. It’s evident enough that this novel, a British chorus-girl’s account of the extravagant lives and loves of her performing family, isn’t a speculative fiction one. This is despite its constant development of its larger-than-life scenarios in directions too ludicrous to believe.

Since the subject of this blog is sci-fi and fantasy, it’s slipstream fiction and weird fiction more than magic realism which concern me here. Bruce Sterling came up with the word slipstream; Sterling’s better known for his connections to cyberpunk, and was the editor of the famed Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Mirrorshades does in fact include some stories more slipstream than cyberpunk, of which 400 Boys and Petra are the most notable; the latter involves a half-statue living in an age when Mortdieu (God’s death) has filled the world with entropy. In 1989, a couple of years after this anthology, Bruce Sterling used the term slipstream for the first time; he defined it as ‘a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange.’

Christopher Priest’s 2006 introduction to the Anna Kavan novel Ice – a novel first published in the 60s, considered slipstream retrospectively – expands upon Sterling’s explanation pretty handily. He writes that ‘slipstream induces a sense of otherness in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror… or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective.’ And – perhaps the make-or-break rule here – ‘Nothing is given a pseudo-scientific explanation (which would make it science fiction), but the strangeness is laid plainly before the audience so that they, like the characters in the drama, take everything at its face value.’ Priest also emphasises that slipstream is nothing so simple as mere allegory. Kavan’s novel shows us an unnamed man’s pursuit of a fairy-tale-like female across a landscape encroached on by walls of ice; interpretations have ranged from its being a metaphor for heroin addiction to its being a metaphor for Cold War Russia’s encroachment over Europe. There’s nothing stopping readers from taking it as either, even as both, but nor is there anything compelling them to do so. This novel never commits itself to representing something so specific. ‘It ends as it begins,’ as Priest puts it, ‘with nothing… concluded.’

Now let’s talk about weird fiction. Originally that word weird was meant in its old sense, as referring not to oddness alone, but to supernatural oddness, to the eerie. Think H. P. Lovecraft. Nowadays, the New Weird is a thing; in some works New Weird’s supernatural-horror origins are visible, but this fashionable term also tends to be applied to works which would pretty much have been described as slipstream previously. And when New Weird appears in a sentence, you can count on China Miéville’s name appearing in the next one (critics will debate what’s New Weird all day, but that Miéville is they always agree). I can’t argue; China Miéville, particularly since his Mervyn-Peake-influenced early days, has become an excellent writer who does indeed exemplify what’s best about this genre. His 2005 short story collection Looking for Jake, of which the highlight is the novella The Tain, still has connections to old weird fiction or horror-fantasy. The Tain might over-simplistically be considered a monster or vampire story, though these beautifully-described monsters are in fact reflections come alive. But his 2009 novel The City & City shows the New Weird’s full newness and its full weirdness; a Kafkaesque police procedural that’s set across two cities which exist in the same space, but which nonetheless remain separate. It’s a page-turner of a whodunnit in a setting which, though it rejects exact comparisons, is intriguing politically and sociologically.

It’s contradictory to obsess too much over the technicalities of the slipstream genre or the weird fiction genre, to label that rejection of labels which characterises the work I’m talking about here. What these works have in common is most of all their feel, and I’ve tried to provide at least a rough sense of that in this article. Doubtful as the exact differences between these areas can be, what’s not in doubt is that they encompass some of the smartest, and the newest, spec-fic out there. And if you’re after an entry-point into these genres between genres, then I’ll be another to make the well-deserved, if predictable, recommendation of Miéville; of The City & the City, at any rate.

M. John Harrison and his K-tract trilogy: space opera meets cyberpunk meets almost everything else

M. John Harrison, though not a particularly well-known author in any sense, is perhaps best known as a writer not of sci-fi but of fantasy. Throughout the first part of his career he was preoccupied principally with the Viriconium sequence, which consists of three novels and numerous short stories. While Harrison’s Viriconium works aren’t a personal favourite of mine, I’m interested to observe the shift between the first novel and the last one. The author moved from The Pastel City, slightly Arthurian large-scale epic fantasy, to the final novel In Viriconium, a work which centres on the riff-raff of one area. This writer’s skill with words is evident throughout the series too, especially his penchant for that aptitude that makes you feel simultaneously like you’ve never seen it that way and like you’ve always seen it that way. (Have you ‘Watched two clouds close a slot of blue in the winter sky, so that you felt as if something had been taken from you forever?’) From this Harrison went on to novels such as Course of the Heart and the excellent Signs of Life, novels best described as magic-realist in style. His recent Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, published 2002-2012, is Harrison’s major foray into sci-fi to date (his only one since an early – 1974 – effort, The Centauri Device, loved by some critics and loathed by himself, still to be read by me).

Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space make up the K-tract trilogy. The three are linked by some characters’ recurrence, and by the sense of transcendence with which each book closes, and by the constant overshadowing presence of the Kefahuchi Tract singularity. But all three also stand alone, though the last to a slightly lesser degree than the other two. The first is a space opera told from the perspectives of a (psychopathic) researcher somewhere around the present day, a far-future space captain who forms part of her spacecraft, and an ex-space-explorer who’s addicted to virtual reality. The second – perhaps my favourite – is a noirish crime story set in a weird town where scientific laws don’t apply thanks to the K-tract singularity (Nova Swing has a more-than-passing resemblance , as it recognises with an opening quote, to Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys). The last book, Empty Space, blends space opera and detective tale and more, and creates a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

This genre-bending is one of the joys of Harrison’s K-tract sequence. I’ve used the term space opera a couple of times; the space-ships / aliens / intergalactic warfare are there in plenty. Yet these works focus less on epic conflict than on low-life, and are in fact more cyberpunk in their sensibility. The series is sci-fi; but soft sci-fi, and its loose semi-metaphorical explanations of phenomena can mean it borders on fantasy. Consider the ubiquitous algorithms known as shadow operators, who can run on human bodies ‘as shadow boys full of crime and beauty and inexplicable motives’, but who tend to cling in corners ‘in loose temporary skeins like cobwebs in the folds of an old curtain… biting their thin, bony knuckles.’ In its veering between sci-fi and fantasy, and in its often-dreamlike quality, the series can be described as slipstream at times. This dreamlike quality occurs even in the present-era parts of the narrative, and it is contributed to by the characters’ tendency to behave obliquely – to an extent everybody resembles the minor cast-member Sprake, his motivations ‘a dialogue so internalised it could only be inferred, partially and undependably, from the sum of his actions.’

Whilst it’s difficult to further convey, at least without giving too much away, this is a first-class sci-fi trilogy. And, more, it’s just a first-class trilogy; it’s one of the most memorable works I’ve happened upon in the last year or so. Aside from his imaginative scope, Harrison possesses a technical ability that most writers in any genre can only envy. This is evident in his plotting and pacing, in his movingly convincing characterisation, in the minutiae of each sentence in every story. To use the words of that other superb speculative fiction writer China Miéville: ‘M. John Harrison proves what only those crippled by respectability still doubt – that science fiction can be literature of the very greatest kind.’

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

‘My name is Charles Yu’, reads the back of Charles Yu’s 2010 book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. ‘I’m a time machine repairman. In one minute, I’m going to murder myself. Again.’ A time-loop premise which is certainly catchy, but time-loop stories are no novelty; it’s thanks to its other aspects, I find, that this work does have a unique quality. (This review should be fairly spoiler-free.)

The conceit of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is that it is a ‘book from nowhere’. This is an oft-proposed time-travel paradox (for instance, as I write, it has recently been the subject of a Doctor Who episode). A time-traveller takes a book he wrote, and travels back to before he wrote it; he gives said book to his younger self to copy, which is how the book was written in the first place. Think about it: his book exists, but all he’s done is to copy. So Charles Yu’s novel purports to be a work from his future self (the same self he’s murdered), which his present self is now reading and writing simultaneously. Though it isn’t his own, Yu puts the paradox to skilful use; it provides the whole work with a metafictional element.

This postmodern self-reflexiveness isn’t limited to the ‘book from nowhere’ conceit alone. A word about the self-declared setting of a ‘science fictional universe’. This doesn’t refer to a universe based on advanced science. It refers to a universe based on the sci-fi genre. The time machines move less between dates than between tenses (our hero’s lived in the Present Indefinite for some time). The protagonist owns a dog who was ‘retconned out of some space western’, as another instance. And in this book’s world – or worlds, rather – you come across people like the son of Luke Skywalker; this kid’s ‘trapped in his whole dark-father-lost-son-galactic-monomyth thing and he doesn’t know any other way.’ Besides the literary boldness of a novel that sets itself within its own genre in this way, and the layer of complexity added by self-consciousness in this degree, Yu’s approach can result in humour which is almost Douglas Adams-esque.

Furthermore, for all this book’s postmodern cleverness, there are some simple (even eternal) themes at the core. One of its strengths is how it reflects on the human condition via time-travel tropes. For example – on time-travel’s inability to alter the past, and on the effects were this possible – ‘Instead of the ordinary problems of life, the problem of what to do next, of what to do first, of what to do ever, at all, even the smallest step, we would also have the problem of what to do yesterday, of what to do last year, of how to justify anything, ever.’ Time-travel is a metaphor for memory and even life: ‘Everyone is a time machine. […] The strangest and hardest kind of time travel is the unaided kind. People get stuck, people get looped. People get trapped.’ Much of the story, in addition, is an exploration of the protagonist’s relationship with his parents (with his lost father particularly). The novel’s more fantastic elements are offset by some beautifully-observed snapshots of day-to-day personal life.

I will say that Yu’s ending feels a little easy. I’ve stated that the book’s time-loop premise, if fun, isn’t in fact its main success. Certainly the resolution of the time-loop story didn’t satisfy me. The epilogue, Appendix A, also seems to sort out the subplot involving the father with a neatness in contradiction to this book’s attitudes (although, in a work as ironic as this one, there’s room to suppose that this conclusion was itself intended ironically).

But on the whole, Yu’s first novel is smart, innovative, funny; and it doesn’t have brains alone, it has heart too. Looking forward to reading more by this author in the future.