Monday, August 11, 2008

Alfred Bester, a brief look at two novels

Alfred Bester, is probably best known for two novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.

While many SF writers are able to come up with ideas or concepts or technology that equal those of Bester, his strength, which is shared by very few, is his ability to take that idea and make it an integral part of the culture that it is embedded in and also an integral part of the story. Removing that SF element from a novel by Bester results in a culture with inexplicable elements and a story that makes little or no sense at all. Many stories that claim to be SF, yet, upon close examination are stories that could be set anywhere, anytime, anyplace. That's not to say that these are bad stories; it's just that they aren't true SF tales at their core but simply stories with a few SF trappings.

In Bester's stories, we find just the opposite. Many writers have employed telepathy or other ESP powers in tales, but for the most part, the telepathy/ESP aspects could be removed with little difficulty, and the tale would remain the same. However, in Bester's The Demolished Man, the telepathy is such an integral part of the work, that removing it leaves little that makes much sense.

A man plans the death of a business rival. Rather than risk blackmail, he decides to do it himself. In this culture, the potential murderer must not only take into consideration the usual problems of committing the crime at a time and place so that there are no witnesses nor leave any evidence that he was at the scene, but he must also come to grips with the situation that the police employ telepaths who would quickly be able to detect his guilt simply by reading his mind. Lacking any psychic powers of his own, he can not prevent this. Since most people have secrets they would not want to become general knowledge, those who are rich will hire their own telepaths to warn them when other telepaths are approaching and therefore take steps to protect themselves. Consequently, in addition to the police, the murderer now has to contend with the problem that other telepaths will be around who would be able to quickly detect his intentions even before he committed the murder. Much of the novel depicts his activities prior to the crime as he works to counter the problems caused by telepathy. The reader also is confronted by a variety of cultural responses to the awareness that now even one's thoughts are no longer safe.

In The Stars My Destination Bester plays again with ESP, but this time with the ability to teleport oneself from one place to another. Teleportation is simply the power to move oneself by power of mind itself. One does not have to get in a car to go across town; one simply imagines ones' destination and one is there. Considering the high price of gas today, this means of transportation looks better every time I think about it.

This is not a story in which teleportation or jaunting, as it is called, is simply tacked onto the society in which it was developed. Bester has gone to considerable lengths to work out the possible effects that this power, which can be taught and is possessed by the majority of people in that society, might have upon that society. One of the most significant effects of this power is the threat to privacy, anywhere and everywhere.

Fortunately juanting has its limitations. One of most significant is that one must be familiar with and be able form a picture of the destination that one wishes to jaunt to. This means that people can jaunt only to places that they have already visited. As the narrator points out, this gives new meaning to the Grand Tour. Moreover, those with superior ability to form an image of a destination can go more places and also farther at one jump than those with a lesser ability to form a mental image of their destination.

Because of jaunting's threat to privacy, the rich and powerful and famous take extraordinary precautions to protect their homes. Each mansion or estate now has a central core that no one but family members are able to enter. Women's bedrooms have no doors or windows; one must jaunt to enter and one can jaunt only to places one has been and therefore can visualize. Bodyguards are selected for their jaunting abilities as well as their ability to react quickly to immediate threats. Speed and flexibility are now all important: the strong but dumb bodyguard is gone.

As with any human ability, jaunting develops its own hierarchy At some levels of society, one's skill level can raise or lower one's status. However, at the upper levels of society, the reverse becomes true; it becomes a reverse status symbol. Prestign of Prestign, one of the wealthiest men on earth, if not the wealthiest, looks down with scorn on jaunting to such an extent that he hasn't jaunted in years. He hires people who jaunt for him.

Cultures have effects upon the elements which are a part of it, and those elements also influence the culture it is embedded within. The automobile in the US is a classic example of the interrelationship between a culture and the elements within that culture. What would our culture be like without the auto, and how has our culture, which believes in that bigger is better, that speed is all important, and that competition is a major part of life, influenced the auto? More recent examples would be the computer and probably today one would have to consider the mobile phone (cell phone). Ask yourself, as you read this text on the Internet, whether life would be different today without the computer or that little phone. Bester's novels show an awareness of this, and this awareness makes his novels what they are--some of the best SF novels ever written.

The next time you are reading an SF novel, ask yourself the following question: is the gizmo or the gadget or whatever the SF component consists of really embedded in the story and the culture so as to be an integral part of it, or is it simply a post-it note that's there temporarily and won't be missed if it is removed.


  1. "The Stars My Destination" is one of my favorite SF novels. When I read it the first time, I was surprised that it was written in the 1950's. I liked that it wasn't just an action-adventure book, but also took a look at the characters and the society of that imagined future.

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, it's one of my permanent top ten SF novels, and Gully Foyle is one of my two favorite SF characters. I think Bester did an excellent job of speculating on the changes that jaunting (teleportation) might force upon a society.

    Have you read any of Bester's other novels? They are all interesting.

  3. I need to read "The Demolished Man". What else did he write? You wrote that Gully Foyle is one of your two favorite SF characters. Who's the other one? Also, I'd like to see what's on your top ten SF novel list .

  4. My other favorite SF character?

    It's R. Daneel Olivaw, Asimov's robot detective who first appeared in_Caves of Steel_.

    Bester's novels:

    The Demolished Man (1953)

    Who He? (also published as The Rat Race) (1953)--haven't read this one.

    The Stars My Destination (also published as Tiger, Tiger) (1956)--my favorite.

    The Computer Connection (also published as Extro) (1975)--enjoyable read.

    Golem100 (1980)--strange ending.

    The Deceivers (1981)--adventure stuff

    Tender Loving Rage (1991)--a thriller and not SF, I have it, but haven't read it yet.

    Psychoshop (with Roger Zelazny) (1998)--completed by RZ. Too bad Bester died before completing it. I don't think RZ knew quite what to do with it. Fascinating concept but RZ didn't know where Bester was going.

  5. My top ten SF?

    Well, today my list would include:

    Bester--The Stars My Destination

    Jack Finney--Time and Again

    Russell Hoban--Riddley Walker

    Ursula LeGuin--The Left Hand of Darkness

    CS Lewis--The Space Trilogy

    David Lindsey--A Voyage to Arcturus

    Walter M. Miller, Jr.--A Canticle for Leibowitz

    Kim Stanley Robinson--The Wild Shore

    George Stewart--Earth Abides

    Gene Wolfe--The Book of the New Sun

    I realize I cheated a bit with the Lewis and Wolfe entries, as both are sets, rather than individual works.

    Of course, I must include the Tolkien set (The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings). I read them every two or three years.

    What are your favorites?

  6. I really read more short stories and novellas as far as SF is concerned. I did like The Left Hand of Darkness, and I read Canticle but can't remember alot about it. ( It must've been 20 years ago.) Wolfe intimidates me. Is he an acquired taste? What about Lewis's trilogy - is it hard to get into?

  7. Cheryl,

    I also read many short stories and short SF works, in addition to novels. In fact, I grew up on SF short story collections.

    Wolfe and Lewis--hard to get into? I would say it depends upon the type of fiction you normally read. Wolfe has a number of short story collections out there. Have you read any of them? That would be a good way to find out what he's like--the themes he plays with, his language, and the ways he works out his plots.

    I don't think Lewis should be a problem.

    Neither writes stories that one can just zip through. Both take time with language, especially Wolfe.

    But both reward the reader.