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Bester, Alfred

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1913-1987) US editor and author, born in New York, a city with which he was always closely associated, his first two sf novels – on which his reputation increasingly depends – both being largely set in a vividly presented future New York. Educated in both humanities and sciences – including Psychology, perhaps the most important "science" in his sf – Bester entered sf when he submitted a story to Thrilling Wonder Stories. Mort Weisinger, the editor, helped Bester to polish it, and then suggested he submit it for an amateur story competition that Thrilling Wonder Stories was running. Bester did so and won. The story was "The Broken Axiom" (April 1939 Thrilling Wonder).

Bester published another thirteen sf stories to 1942, and then followed his friend Weisinger, along with Otto Binder, Manly Wade Wellman and others, into the field of Comic books, working on such DC Comics titles as Superman, The Green Lantern and Batman. He worked successfully for four years on comics outlines and dialogue, later working on Captain Marvel, and then moved into radio, scripting for such serials as Charlie Chan and The Shadow (see The Shadow). After the intensive course in action plotting this career had given him, Bester returned (part-time) to the sf magazines in 1950, by now more mature as a writer, though his main job at the time was scripting the new television series Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. There ensued over the next six years a series of stories and novels which are considered to be among the greatest creations of genre sf.

Bester was never prolific in sf, which was more of a hobby than a career for him, publishing only 13 more short stories – mostly in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – before 1960. (One of the five "Quintets" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction September 1959 was by Bester writing as Sonny Powell.) But these alone would have secured him a place in the sf pantheon. Most of his stories were originally issued in book form in two collections, Starburst (coll 1958) and The Dark Side of the Earth (coll 1964). These collections were reassembled with six stories dropped, and one older novella – "Hell is Forever" – and three then quite recent stories added along with the amusing autobiographical essay "My Affair with Science Fiction" (in Nova 4, anth 1974, ed Harry Harrison), in two further collections, The Light Fantastic: The Great Short Stories of Alfred Bester, Volume I (coll 1976) and Star Light, Star Bright: The Great Short Stories of Alfred Bester, Volume II (coll 1976), which were in turn reissued as an omnibus volume, Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (omni 1976). A final assembly, Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (coll 1997), which includes one previously unpublished tale, is probably definitive.

Bester's talents were evident from the beginning. At least three stories from his 1939-1942 period are memorable: "Adam and No Eve" (September 1941 Astounding) (see Adam and Eve; End of the World; Last Man), "The Push of a Finger" (May 1942 Astounding) and "Hell is Forever" (August 1942 Unknown). The latter, a long novella, exhibits in a slightly sophomoric way the qualities for which Bester would later be celebrated: it is cynical, baroque and aggressive, produces hard, bright images in quick succession, and deals with obsessive states of mind. The most notable later story is "Fondly Fahrenheit" (August 1954 F&SF), a breathless story of a man and his Android servant whose personalities intermesh in a homicidal folie à deux. Also memorable are "Of Time and Third Avenue" (October 1951 F&SF), "Disappearing Act" (in Star Science Fiction Stories 2, anth 1953, ed Frederik Pohl) and "The Men who Murdered Mohammed" (October 1958 F&SF), one of the most concentratedly witty twists on the Time-Paradox story ever written. At about the time of this story Bester addressed an sf symposium at the University of Chicago; his paper is one of the four reprinted in the anonymously edited The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (anth 1959; intro by Basil Davenport).

Bester's first two sf novels, The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) and Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996), are among the genuine classics of Genre SF. Structurally they are the sf equivalent of the Jacobean revenge drama: both feature malcontent figures, outsiders from society bitterly cognizant of its corruption, but themselves partly ruined by it, just as in The Revenger's Tragedy or The Duchess of Malfi; like them, too, Bester's novels blaze with a sardonic imagery, mingling symbols of decay and new life – rebirth is a recurrent theme of Bester's – with a creative profligacy; they were cited by Brian W Aldiss as major examples of the subgenre he termed Widescreen Baroque.

The Demolished Man, which won the first Hugo for Best Novel, in 1953, tells a story which in synopsis is straightforward: industrialist Ben Reich commits murder (in a society where murder is almost unknown because Telepathy-using Espers can either detect the idea before the act is carried out or subsequently read the perpetrator's guilt), almost gets away with it, is ultimately caught by Esper detective Linc Powell, and is committed to curative brainwashing, "demolition" (see Identity; Crime and Punishment). It is the pace, the staccato style, the passion and the pyrotechnics that make the novel extraordinary. The future society is evoked in marvellously hard-edged details; the hero is a driven, resourceful man whose obsessions are explained in Freudian terms that might seem too glib if they were given straight, but are evoked with the same New Yorker's painful, ironic scepticism that informs the whole novel. Bester's mainstream novel Who He? (1953; vt The Rat Race 1956), about the television and advertising businesses, sheds some light on the milieu of The Demolished Man. Incidentally, although this coinage eluded the attention of dictionary researchers until 2020, The Demolished Man contains what seems to be the first appearance of the then-neologistic "audiobook".

As Bester's original manuscript and/or editorial notes are missing, the sometimes significant textual variations among the four iterations of Tiger! Tiger! or The Stars My Destination [as given in the Checklist below] have proved singularly difficult to sort out. In his reprinting of this central tale in American Science Fiction (anth/omni 2012 2vols) Gary K Wolfe, after much consideration, selected the 1957 Signet first American edition as copy text. In whatever form, the novel tells the story of the now legendary Gully Foyle, whose passion for revenge transforms him from an illiterate outcast to a transcendent, ambiguous, quasi-Superman in "an age of freaks, monsters and grotesques" (as outlined in a scene-setting Prologue, a loose parody of the beginning passages of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities [1859] which is one of sf's most memorable Infodumps) where the Psi Power of Teleportation is near-universal. Like the first novel, this one lives as much through the incidentals of the setting – in a lurid, crumbling, twenty-fifth-century world, where the rich live in armoured Keeps – as in the plot itself, portions of which, Bester confessed, were borrowed from Alexandre Dumas's Le Comte de Monte-Christo (28 August 1844-15 January 1846 Journal des Débats; 1844-1845 18vols; trans as The Count of Monte Cristo 1846 3vols). Foyle's unjust immurement in an Underground prison and his escape are clearly derived from this source; and his subsequent transformation into the ominous joker Geoffrey Fourmyle also echoes the original, even to details like supernatural agility and the power to see in the dark – here resulting from Cyborg rewiring. But the conclusion, where a tortured and transfigured Foyle (wracked with Synaesthesia) seems about to become a Messiah, extends beyond Dumas; along with the pyrotechnics in space, this flamboyantly Transcendental ending strengthens the sense that the novel was a central father of the "new" Space Opera a few decades later. The first volume of a Graphic-Novel version by Howard V Chaykin (adaptation by Byron Preiss), was The Stars My Destination: The Graphic Story Adaptation: Volume One (graph 1979); the second volume, though widely bruited, was not in fact published until it appeared, with the first, in The Stars My Destination: The Graphic Story Adaptation (graph 1992).

In the late 1950s Bester was taken on by Holiday magazine as a feature writer, ultimately becoming senior literary editor, a post he held until the magazine ceased publication in the 1970s, at which time he returned to sf. "The Four-Hour Fugue" (June 1974 Analog) shows the old extraordinary assurance and inventiveness, and just a trace of over-facility. Two decades after his last, his new novel, The Computer Connection (November 1974-January 1975 Analog as "The Indian Giver"; 1975; vt Extro 1975), while full of incidental felicities, did not quite recapture the old drive in its ornate story of a group of immortals and an omniscient Computer; perhaps it lacked a natural "Besterman" as focus. The pace and complexity were still there, but somehow looking like self-Parody.

The next book, Golem100 (1980), was more ambitious, had a more authentic Bester flavour, and was perhaps surprisingly regarded by Bester as his best novel. It expands "The Four-Hour Fugue" into an extraordinary but overheated tale of the jungle of New York in 2175 CE, with diabolism, depth psychology (a Monster from the Id), bee superwomen, pheromones, perverse sex, and overall a miasma of death. But the 1960s-style radicalism now looked a little out of date, and what used to be spare and sinewy in his work had begun to seem prolix; the craziness looked like ornamentation rather than what it once was, structural. His last sf novel was The Deceivers (1981), which features a Synergist hero who can perceive patterns; sadly, but interestingly in the light of Bester's fame, the sf press almost unanimously failed to review this, presumably out of respect for his feelings. Despite many pale thematic echoes of his best work – chiefly Tiger! Tiger!, with the hero's pattern-sensitivity deriving from "The Pi Man" (October 1959 F&SF) – it is not good. When he died six years later, after a long period of ill health, he willed his house and literary estate to his bartender. The posthumously published Tender Loving Rage (1991), written more than 20 years earlier, is a mainstream novel set in 1959, and appropriately features a scientist adopted by the New York advertising/tv people.

Bester's innovative, ferocious, magpie (his word) talent has certainly been influential in Genre SF, on writers as disparate as James Blish, Samuel R Delany and Michael Moorcock. In many respects his work was a forerunner of Cyberpunk. He is one of the very few genre-sf writers to have bridged the chasm between the old and the New Wave, by becoming a legendary figure for both – perhaps because in his sf imagery he conjured up, with bravura, both outer and Inner Space. In 1988 he posthumously received the SFWA Grand Master Award; he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001. [PN]

see also: Conceptual Breakthrough; Elements; ESP; Galaxy Science Fiction; Golden Age of SF; Gothic SF; History of SF; Humour; Imaginary Science; Linguistics; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Nebula; Optimism and Pessimism; Outer Planets; Perception; SF in the Classroom; Supernatural Creatures; Torture; Transportation; Villains.

Alfred Bester

born New York: 18 December 1913

died Doylestown, Pennsylvania: 30 September 1987


collections and stories

about the author



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