The 1950s and early 1960s saw science fiction emerge blinking from the pulps and into the brave new world of honest-to-god literature. This has been widely regarded as a good move, though certain reactionary elements of the literary world like to pretend it never took place. Suddenly, sci-fi was scaling the heady heights of Theme, Depth, and Language, and began to produce real masterpieces like A Canticle for Leibowitz and Lord of Light (which you should also read). It became clear that sci-fi could do better than the giants of old, the Asimovs and Doc Smiths, and even old stalwarts like Heinlein were cautiously adjusting to the new paradigm of focusing more on the fi than the sci. Enter Alfred Bester.
Of Bester’s eight novels, most agree six were forgettable and two were all-time classics. These two are The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, published in 1953 and 1956 respectively (the former winning the very first Hugo Award), and they represent the glorious conjunction of the ‘Golden Age’ and the ‘New Wave’. The pair share a few strong quirks: both feature telepathy as a prominent story element, both employ innovative typographical trickery, both centre on strongly active men with the potential to permanently change the course of history for better or for worse – and both are brilliant. Bester’s plots are wound so tight they threaten to explode at any moment, fizzing with an endlessly inventive but laser-focused propulsive energy. The Stars My Destination cheats a little by taking The Count of Monte Cristo as its basis, but The Demolished Man is a wonderfully sharp inverted murder mystery which stands as a remarkable achievement in the fields of both sci-fi and crime fiction.
Bester’s prose is the holy grail: rich and descriptive yet devastatingly efficient, snarling with wit and blistering imagination yet never bloating or stumbling. Both of his great novels are ~250 pages, but if a lesser author were to write them today then the same amount of plot would stretch over at least twice that. This is the legacy of pulp in Bester’s work and the hallmark of a prolific short story writer; I can safely say that these two novels contain the best plotting I’ve encountered in the sci-fi genre and some of the best plotting in any genre, a talent which seems to be withering away in the modern age of thousand-page monstrosities. Bester’s affinity for story and drama are simply unmatched, and stylistically he stands head and shoulders above anyone else writing that kind of novel. What Raymond Chandler is to detective fiction, Alfred Bester is to science fiction.
His influence is felt across the board today, but nowhere more than in the world of cyberpunk – remarkable, since Bester wrote at a time when computers were room-sized and exceedingly rare. William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Charles Stross are obvious heirs to Bester’s crackerjack style (specifically, the character of Da5id in Snow Crash references Bester’s typographic puns, @kins and ¼main and the like), and The Stars My Destination has been held up as the original cyberpunk novel. Bester’s concerns of identity and mentality were years ahead of their time and simultaneously fascinatingly complex and elegantly simple, and so were his novels; it is absolutely impossible to dislike them. They are products of their time, featuring the curious combination of racial egalitarianism and rampant sexism, and they didn’t hit the same artistic heights that later works like The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Dhalgren would – but they’re little masterpieces all the same, and they’re both among the most shamelessly, exhilaratingly entertaining books I’ve ever read.
Image Credit: http://www.psu.edu/dept/scifi/manufacturers.shtml