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.

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.’