Thursday, August 14, 2008

Alfred Bester, "Fondly Fahrenheit"

Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" is probably his best known short work. The title invariably brings up memories of another favorite short work, Ray Bradbury's longer short work, "Fahrenheit 451." While both feature "Fahrenheit" in the title, and high temperatures are associated with violence, those are the only significant similarities between them.

Bradbury's work satirizes a society that seeks to protect its citizens from unhappiness or suffering by banning all books that have the potential to confuse or sadden or make the reader question long-established beliefs and traditions. The banned books are burned by members of that era's fire department, and Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn. In this story's time and place, firemen burn books not put fires out. The work was made into a film in 1966, directed by Francois Truffaut.

Bester's story isn't social satire, although I supposed an argument could be made by Marxists that the story recounts the horrors resulting from exploitation of the working class--the android. But, if one doesn't buy that, then one must also admit that the story is one that doesn't fit too well into genre pigeonholes--it could be SF or horror or even experimental mainstream lit, but clearly closer, I suppose, to an SF horror story than to social satire.

What interests me the most in this story is that it begins as a story about a serial killer android, and then slowly shifts into a tale that explores issues of identity, so much so that the reader, at least this reader, has difficulty in determining from whose point of view the story is being told. There are at least five points of view in this story. The first four are easy to determine, but it's not clear whom the fifth point of view belongs to.

The plot is simple: Vandaleur owns a multiple aptitude android, the most versatile type in existence. The android is his sole means of support. Without any skills or talents of his own, he would soon be penniless without it.

The story begins with a search party looking for a missing little girl, who eventually is found murdered. The reader soon learns that the android is responsible. (Wasn't Frankenstein's monster's first victim a small child?)

After the discovery, the reader listens in to a discussion among several men who were in the search party:

"What kind of blood doesn't clot?"
"Looks like she was killed by one."
"Vandaleur owns an android."
"She couldn't be killed by an android."
"But androids can't kill."
"Androids can't kill. They're made that way."

And later in the story, another character says, "I thought androids couldn't kill or destroy property. Prime Directives and Inhibitions set up for them when they're synthesized. Every company guarantees they can't ."

I wonder just how much Bester was influenced by Asimov's robot stories. "Fondly Fahrenheit" appeared in 1954. Asimov's robot stories began appearing in the early '40s, and his three laws of robotics were spelled out as early as 1942 in a short story, "Runaround." His first robot novel, _Caves of Steel_ was published in 1953. While a robot was accused of committing a murder in one or more of Asimov's works, I can't remember any in which one became a serial killer.

In Bester's story we find a brief discussion of the differences between a robot and an android--one is machinery and an android is organic-or at least chemically based synthetic tissues. Given that distinction being made, there are still several curious statements made by others throughout the story which seem to reflect Asimov's influence here. My guess is that Bester, along with many other SF writers, were/are influenced by Asimov's Three Laws, whether it is an android or a robot in question.

However, there is more to this story than just a malfunctioning murderous android. The true horror of the story is the idea that one can project a mental illness or malfunction to others. Vandaleur consults several experts about the problem, and all bring up the issue of projection as a significant problem.

However, the explanation by the psychologists that involves projection sounds very weak to me, primarily because the process they describe is not really projection. Projection is not contagion. Projection is the attribution of one's own attitudes onto others. If one is a habitual liar, then one calls others liars and believes that they are liars, for the most part. However, that does not make the second person a liar. Projection does not affect the other individual except in so far as how the projector acts towards the recipient of its projection.

That's projection, and that clearly is not what is happening here. We are seeing something quite different than one person attributing an attitude to another. The experts themselves don't understand what is taking place.

For example, we should look at the following paragraph from the text:

"Vandaleur rushed to Dallas Brady's workshop, stared once, vomited and fled. I had enough time to pack one bag and raise nine hundred dollars on portable assets. He took a third class cabin on the Megaster Queen which left that morning for Lyra Alpha. He took me with him. He wept and counted his money and I beat the android again."

The first sentence is third person POV, focused on Vandaleur. Someone tells us what happened to Vandaleur and what he did. The second sentence is now 1st person POV, with Vandaleur now telling us what he did. We now experience the story through Vandaleur's consciousness. The third sentence is a return to third person POV, just as in the first sentence. The fourth sentence suddenly is 1st person POV again, but the android is now talking to us and explaining what it did or what happened to it. We are now in the android's mind, experiencing the events as the android experiences it.

The last sentence is a mix--two POVs in one sentence. The first part is third person POV, about Vandaleur once again, but the second half--"I beat the android again"--is first person--Vandaleur is now talking to us once again.

The narrator changes from being an observer of the action, the third person POVs, to being the two actors in the story, both Vandaleur and the android. Also scattered throughout are parts in which the narrator is "we"; both Vandaleur and android are now one telling the story; and in other places, the narrator uses "they" and "them," which suggests that the narrator is now neither Vandaleur nor the android, but someone observing them. It is as if this blended consciousness has become independent of both Vandaleur and the android.

Throughout the story Bester's skillful use of five little words, pronouns to be exact--I, he, we, they, and us--blurs the boundary between Vandaleur and the android so profoundly at times, that they no longer seem to be separate individuals. I find it fascinating to read what a writer like Bester can do; he takes a common grammatical error--technically called a pronoun reference problem--and turns it into a horror story.

The ending is clear: there is no ending.


  1. After digging through my Sf story collections, I finally found this story. I'd read it years ago, but I took a fresh look at it . To me, the switching of the pronouns helps me feel the madness that is happening with the "projection" of each one's personality onto the other. Even the annoying song ("All reet!") is first sung by the android, but then equally adopted by Vandaleur. The ending, in which we see Vandaleur with a new android who also is turning into a killer - even at low temperatures- suggests to me that it's now Vandeleur's insanity that's being "projected". (I think that the insanity began with the first android and "projected" onto Vandeleur.) I don't think it means that insanity is contagious, as in something is transferred like a germ. I think the story implies that it's the proximity to insanity - being constantly immersed in that kind of thinking by a constant companion- that can make the other become the same way. At the ending of the story it says "If you live with a crazy man or a crazy machine long enough, I become crazy too."

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, I agree. It's Bester's use of the pronouns that make this story really work. They put you inside V's head, the android's head, both heads?, and the rapid switching back and forth, I think, mimics perhaps the confusion in their head(s).

    I thought the elimination of the temperature factor was a great touch. In the first android, it was the temperature's inimical effect that caused the problem, and now that V has now absorbed? the psychosis, high temperatures are no longer necessary to trigger the violence.

  3. Top notch analysis of this excellent short story. The mixed pronoun paragraph affected me as a boy and I understood exactly where he was going with it. When oh when is Hollywood going to notice Bester?

  4. Billy Scribbles,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and for the kind words. That mixed pronoun paragraph is probably the core of the story or so it seems to me.

    When will Hollywood notice Bester? I suspect it may be never, unless some unusually perceptive and creative director or producer discovers him. Or somebody with money and determination.

  5. I have read that "Stars My Destination" has been attempted several times, sorta like "Watchmen". It is too good a story to let lie. I forgot I ever wrote you, love your site. The following is my post on FurAffinity which required checking up on, hence my visit back.

    1. Billy,

      I had read the same thing about TSMD. Somebody gets all excited for a while and then nothing.

    2. I am sure that it was regarded as too difficult to film. I now have heard that it keeps changing hands. The graphic adaption by Howard Chaykin in Heavy Metal introduced me to the story. Bester was not prolific by today's standards, and his last two novels were forgettable. I read Fondly Fahrenheit in Dangerous Visions when I was twelve or so, a book that stands alone as a compilation that is larger than the sum of it's parts. I see you are reading Durrell and Trollope. Red Harvest, now, there's a book! (see-Yojimbo). Keep up the good work, writing is always more important than flash!

    3. Billy,

      I imagine that the special effects budget would be astronomical; perhaps going to Mars would be less expensive.

      Yes, Red Harvest, Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars (Clint Eastwood), and Last Man Standing (Bruce Willis).

      I read DV when it came out, but I was a lot older than you were at that time. While I thought it was an interesting collection, I didn't really see it as that "dangerous."