Voluntine’s Guest Post: “Alfred Bester, the Reason I Read Science Fiction”

This week is the first annual Voluntine’s, a blogger holiday started by fellow writer and gamer C.T. Murphy. Voluntine’s is all about swapping blog posts with other writers and sharing each other’s work. You can read more about it on United We game here, or check out the #Voluntines tag on Twitter to see what’s being published this week.

Today, Robo♥beat is hosting an article by C.T. Murphy — one of my favorite bloggers and the man who’s been kicking off these writing holidays. (Remember Listmas in December?) If you haven’t started following him yet, you can make your way to his fantastic blog here!

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“Alfred Bester, the Reason I Read Science Fiction”

alfred-bester

“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying … but nobody thought so.  This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it.  This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks … but nobody loved it.”  That’s how Alfred Bester started off his second most famous novel, The Stars My Destination, my favorite of his works.  Most of you have probably never heard of Mr. Bester, or even The Stars My Destination, but by the end of this speech, you will know the influence he had on the genre.

That’s how I began a speech I gave on Alfred Bester in my college speech class and that’s how I am going to begin here.

Alfred Bester is my absolute favorite science fiction author of all time, though he isn’t the best. He just happened to be the author that paved my way to falling deeply in love with the genre. When I read The Stars My Destination in high school, I was floored by his language, characters, and setting. Largely a space opera (a sub-genre that emphasises adventure over hard science), Stars took me on a journey of an everyday man’s quest for revenge, after a passing ship refused to attempt rescuing him after passing the wreckage of his own ship.

The idea came from a story Bester had read about a man who survived a shipwreck during World War II, whose raft had been spotted and passed over multiple times in the four months he was out at sea. Passing captains thought his raft was a decoy, meant to lure their ships into the range of German submarines.

From that small idea, Bester spun a revenge tale in the same vein as Alexander Dumas’ The Count of the Monte Cristo. Vowing revenge, Gully Foyle awakens from his life-long status of being average to hunt down and destroy every crewmember of the ship that passed him by as an affluent member of society. I have always been a sucker for stories about revenge, and The Stars My Destination doesn’t disappoint.

Beginning with the lines “He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap…”, Stars is a perfect example of Bester’s gift for highly expressive language. As a writer for DC Comics on runs of Superman and Green Lantern in the 1940’s, Bester honed a skill for action-packed sentences and a willingness to forsake substance for absolute style.

Equally good, his other most famous novel, The Demolished Man, won the first ever Hugo Award for Best novel in 1953 (which is a big reason why I still pay attention to Hugo Awards to this day). A police procedural, The Demolished Man follows Ben Reich, a CEO looking to murder his chief rival in a world where premeditated world hasn’t occurred in years. This largely due to espers, a group of humans born with telepathic abilities. The novel also follows Lincoln Powell, a telepathic detective in charge of the case.

Like Stars, The Demolished Man is an absolute must-read for fans of science fiction. Though both are a product of their time and feature typically flat and under-utilized female characters, their writing holds up remarkably well to modern standards. In general, Bester’s style of writing is one I wish I could emulate in my own creative writing.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from The Demolished Man:

“Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sicknesses… Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people.”

Other than those two novels and his brief career with DC Comics, Bester was also quite good at writing short stories. His short Fondly Fahrenheit about a murderous android and its owner who’s own psychotic tendencies are projected onto it, was adapted for television in 1959 as Murder and the Android. Another of his shorts, The Men Who Murdered Mohammed, contains an excellent twist on the traditional ‘go back in time and kill someone’ trope and is a personal must-read for the twists alone.

And that’s about it. Though there are several other decent short stories that could be mentioned, Bester’s other novels do not live up to his first two and probably aren’t worth your time. Still, his legacy remains strong on the little bit of work that he does leave behind, as he is pivotal member of the Golden Age of science fiction canon.

If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend giving Alfred Bester a shot. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

— C.T. Murphy

8 thoughts on “Voluntine’s Guest Post: “Alfred Bester, the Reason I Read Science Fiction””

  1. One of the very good things about “The Stars-My Destination” is that Bester played fair with his audience. He thought through the societal implications of teleportation in the book, something which the writers of “Star Trek” never seem to have done…

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