‘THE PROBABLE MAN’:
THE GREAT SHORT FICTION
OF ALFRED BESTER
Alfred Bester –
18 December 1913 to 30 September 1987
Yet ‘(I) am not at all glamorous’ ventures Alfred Bester in ‘Hell’s Cartographers’ (1975), ‘merely a working stiff.’ And his photo in his ‘New Worlds’ writer-profile (no.29, November 1954) almost fools you into believing it. He presents a clean 1950s TV-sitcom image, short disciplined dark hair, heavy tortoiseshell-rim spectacles, ignited by a cheesy smile. Suggesting the slick prose-style of a Madison Avenue ‘Mad Man’ advertising copywriter. And yes, he was very much a working writer, across several genres, quoting Galsworthy as an aspirational model. Nevertheless, the history and the greatest hits of this working stiff conveniently spans two short story collections – ‘The Light Fantastic’ (1977) and ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ (1978), forming a cosmic-bridge from 1941 to 1975. The Best of Bester. Published in Britain as companion volumes by Berkeley/ Putnam bracketed as ‘the great short fiction of Alfred Bester’, in the States they were available as a single omnibus edition from Nelson Doubleday through the SFBC. Bester himself confides ‘I always dismiss my past and concentrate on the present and future. As a result I don’t remember three-quarters of the things I’ve written, and certainly not the dates of anything.’ So, if a modicum of effort has gone into their compilation, the effort has been well worthwhile.
“Adam And No Eve” was included among the eleven 1941-1954 stories gathered into an earlier collection – ‘Starburst’ (Signet, 1958), some of them showing thematic or technical limitations. With regard to elaborating the finer detail of such stories, Bester’s comments are irritatingly vague, he instead prefers to conjur entertaining pastiches on the next phase of his career. From 1942 – after thirteen SF short story sales, he became heavily involved in the comics industry, and scripting for radio while simultaneously churning out workable scripts for TV’s juvenile ‘Tom Corbett: Space Cadet’. Arguably the tight formulaic discipline involved strengthened and encouraged his plotting dexterity. During this freelance sojourn he retained his Science Fiction links by doing book reviews, before returning to SF-proper through sales made predominantly to Tony Boucher’s ‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’. And the evolution is very much in evidence.
From the tail-end of this phase comes another of his masterpieces – “Fondly Fahrenheit” (‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, August 1954, much reprinted, including in ‘The Light Fantastic’). Breathlessly fast-paced, the stylistic invention in this story of a serial-killer android is particularly impressive for its period. The multiple-aptitude android has its ‘prime directive’, which is violently overridden in high temperatures, hence the story title. With Vandaleur, its owner who shares its complex ‘projection’ identity, they flee across the galaxy from world to world, starting on the rice-fields of Paragon III, until arriving at Earth for a showdown in frozen Scottish marshland. Their interlocking consciousness and overlapping identities legitimize startling mid-paragraph shifts in narrative perspective, from third singular, first plural, first singular, third plural – all within the span of fifteen words! A jolting displacement device both disconcertingly effective and perfectly explicable within its context. This dance of words is accelerated by using a nonsense-song ‘be fleet be fleet’ as a recurring motif, ‘so jeet your seat’ becomes as much a punctuation as the end-of-section temperature read-outs.
While anthologizing the story Robert Silverberg oozes superlatives for ‘how quick and supple the prose, how sparkling the dialog, how agile the leaps and pirouettes of the plot!’ adding ‘dazzle has always been Bester’s stock-in-trade’ (in ‘Robert Silverberg’s Worlds Of Wonder’, Victor Gollancz, 1988).
Horace Gold, for example, was apparently instrumental in assembling the ideas that eventually went into his 1953 Hugo winning debut novel ‘The Demolished Man’ which Gold first serialized in three parts in ‘Galaxy’ (January, February and March 1952). Centering on twenty-fourth-century psi-enabled Espers operating within hugely powerful corporations and guilds, it is also a murder-mystery with psychic detective Lincoln Powell tracking criminal Ben Reich through a hard-edged labyrinth of mind-games. If the psychological edge to Powell’s obsessive drive is sharpened by Manhattan Freudian Analysis – ‘my habit is to look at characters from the Freudian point of view first’ admits Bester, it is also seamlessly embedded in pyrotechnical pacing, wielding an assured dexterity the envy not only of young wannabe pretenders, but of seasoned veterans.
Indeed, some genre academics have traced the novel’s experiments with typefaces and the juxtaposition of telepathic and non-telepathic dialogue, as a precursor to cyberpunk, although – as a critical Michael Moorcock points out about ‘Tiger, Tiger’ ‘for all its experimentation’ it ‘used a tried and trusty plot as a basis for the experiments.’ Maybe such an approach is an essential sweetener for groundbreaking innovation? For Bester certainly constitutes a bridge across the gulf between the old and New Wave styles of SF. Brian Aldiss is more generous in applauding Bester’s ‘sparkling and aphoristic’ writing that ‘lent courage to many who were rejecting the older mood of grey realism’ (introducing “Time Is The Traitor” in his ‘Space Odysseys’ anthology, 1974). It would also appear that many of the short stories of the time were spun-off from the novel’s core. But Bester himself does not elaborate.
Also in ‘The Demolished Man’ Bester writes that ‘when life gets tough, you tend to take refuge in the idea that it’s all make-believe’ – as in the title story of the ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ collection in which the children’s wishing rhyme takes on literal meaning. At one point he jokes about perhaps discovering some technique that future-people will refer to as ‘The Bester Effect’, or ‘Bester’s Syndrome’ or ‘Bester’s Law’. One of the problems involved in analyzing his work is that there is no ‘Bester Effect’, each tale works within its own continuum of logic. Dismissing the question by admitting ‘in all this dreaming, I feel at one with all of you. Can any of you deny it?’
This is the way ‘The Demolished Man’ closes. ‘In the endless universe there has been nothing new, nothing different… this strange second in a life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity, and encounter… all of them have been reproduced over and over on the planet of a sun whose galaxy revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already. There has been joy. There will be joy again.’
THE GREAT SHORT FICTION
‘THE LIGHT FANTASTIC’ (Berkley-Putnam, April 1976, Gollancz, May 1977) with ‘5,271,009 (The Starcomber)’, Ms Found In A Champagne Bottle’, ‘Fondly Fahrenheit’ + ‘Comment Of Fondly Fahrenheit’ essay, ‘The Four-Hour Fugue’, ‘The Men Who Murdered Mohammed’, ‘Disappearing Act’, Hell Is Forever
‘STAR LIGHT, STAR BRIGHT’ (Berkley-Putnam, July 1976, Gollancz, February 1978) with ‘Adam And No Eve’, ‘Time Is The Traitor’, ‘Oddy And Id’, ‘Hobson’s Choice’, ‘Star Light, Star Bright’, ‘They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To’, ‘Of Time And Third Avenue’, ‘Isaac Asimov’ (essay), ‘The Pi Man’, ‘Something Up There Likes Me’, ‘My Affair With Science Fiction’ (autobiography)
‘STARLIGHT: THE GREAT SHORT FICTION OF ALFRED BESTER’ (Nelson Doubleday-SFBC, December 1976) omnibus of all titles separately published in the other two short story collection