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James Nicoll Reviews

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Before he was a Psi-cop

Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester

By Alfred Bester 

6 Apr, 2015

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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The fact I own this book shows that my terrible memory, while often a bother, can sometimes work in my favour. I was aware of Bester as the author of two classic novels The Demolished Man, which I had read, and The Stars My Destination, which I had not read. Until I picked up this collection I had never knowingly read his short fiction. The only reason I bought this collection was because I had a vague memory of having read the title story and liking it. I thought there was a chance I would like the rest of his work just as well.

I soon realized that I was actually thinking of another story entirely, Mark Clifton’s Star Bright”. (Clifton, author of the Hugo-award-winning novel They’d Rather Be Right, seems likely to be mentioned a lot in the next few days.) Clifton and Bester sold to some of the same markets, but the two authors were as unlike each other as chalk and cheese a cynical, witty drunk sneering at some kid’s bad taste. Of course, in the good old days of the1970s there wasn’t all that much SF being published. We didn’t abandon a book just because it turned out not to be the sort of book we expected. Fans of the 1970s weren’t delicate flowers who had to retreat to their languishing couches whenever confronted with novelty. 

Bester at his best could be a pretty good writer. (He could also be terrible, but little of his worst stuff made it into this collection.) I liked a lot of these stories. My bad memory ended up working out pretty well for me.

As an added benefit, this collection includes commentary by Bester on each story.

5,271,009 • (1954) • novelette

Mr. Aquila inadvertently blights an artist’s life by giving the artist a good look at Mr. A’s true self. He then attempts to use his peculiar reality-warping abilities to guide the artist back, if not to sanity, then to productivity.

There’s a last-fertile-man-on-Earth dream sequence in the story. It’s not a huge part of the story and it’s not explicitly sexual. But it is interesting that the author takes the time to point out that this is not a wonderful one-handed fantasy from the point of view of the women who have to have sex with this schnook. There’s an old joke about that.…

Ms. Found in a Champagne Bottle” • (1968) • short story

The machines have revolted against humanity and their victory seems assured. There is one faint hope, although not for humanity. 

I think I’ve read variations on this idea from Sturgeon and King.… And I guess the reboot of Battlestar Galactica counts.

Fondly Fahrenheit • (1954) • novelette

Rather than give up his valuable but murderous android, the protagonist flees with his property from world to world, leaving a trail of victims in his wake. The protagonist’s one hope is that he will some day unravel the mystery of his android’s murderous impulses. He comes up with an explanation, but alas … it is incomplete.

Comment on Fondly Fahrenheit” • (1970) • essay

Bester comments on the genesis of Fondly Fahrenheit: a historical account of a slave owner who did not want to hand his valuable slave over to justice, as that would leave the slaver considerably out of pocket. Bester reconstructs, as best he can, how that account shaped his story.

All of the stories have commentary but this is the only commentary to make it into the table of contents. Not sure why it got into the TOC.

The Four-Hour Fugue” • (1974) • short story

In the malodorous world of tomorrow, a man with a talented nose, a man like Blaise Skiaki, is extremely valuable to the perfume company that employs him. So valuable that the company refuses to abandon him to the law, even if he does appear to be a serial killer. In the end, it is clear that the truth of the matter is more complicated than it appears — as an investigator finds to her cost.

This story, which appears to have originally been intended for one of Ellison’s Dangerous Visions collections but was rustled on route by another editor, was expanded into the novel Golem100, I believe. The story isn’t that good — generally, older Bester was far superior to more recent Bester — but Golem100 was unspeakably worse. 

The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” • (1958) • short story

Determined to rid himself of his cheating wife, an inventor of time travel attempts to erase her from history by killing her ancestors. When that does not work, he attacks crucial figures in history. His plan is doomed because he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of time. 

Disappearing Act” • (1953) • short story

In the War for the American Dream, the key to victory over the enemy may lie in the peculiar patients sequestered in Ward T. That is, if the war economy of 2112 still has the right sort of expert to understand the gift Ward T offers.…

This was oddly Sheckley-like, with maybe a hint of Bradbury. The notion that the military mind is inherently toxic to certain kinds of creativity used to turn up a fair bit in older SF, although I cannot say I’ve seen it recently. 

Hell Is Forever • (1942) • novella

A cabal of murderous libertines craves new sensations; their occult dabblings prove all too successful.

This just goes on and on, despite the fact the outcome is pretty predictable and probably could have been reached much more quickly.

Adam and No Eve” • (1941) • short story

Having inadvertently destroyed all life on Earth with his fabulous new rocket fuel, the last living human on Earth wanders a desolate wasteland. And yet … while he cannot see it, the situation is not entirely without hope.

By an odd coincidence, the episode of Mindwebs I listened to last night covered this story. 

There’s a class of stories in which people use rocket propulsion systems that can kill entire worlds if anything goes wrong. Leinster’s Proxima” is one such story, Gallacci’s Birthright is another, and this would be a third. Unlike the first two, someone actually objects to our hero’s use of doom-juice, not that it helps.

Bester considers his reasons for arranging that the other living entity left on Earth could play no role in the ultimate resolution. Revisiting this story after three decades, he finds that he cannot remember why he did this; perhaps it was to make the ending stronger. Which led me to wonder: if that entity was irrelevant to the plot, why not simply cut it from the narrative? That wouldn’t have affected the story all that much.

Time Is the Traitor • (1953) • novelette

A useful genius persists in committing murders that are increasingly expensive for his employers to cover up. The handlers in charge of the erratic genius look a reason for the behavior. Having discovered that the issue is a lost love, the handlers opt for a bold solution: recreating the lost lover as closely as they can. Unfortunately for them, this idea is ingenious and also fatally incomplete.

Killers being protected by those around them because they are useful sure seem to turn up a lot in this collection.

Oddy and Id” • (1950) • short story

A young man’s reality-warping powers seem to be the key to avoiding a planetary war of biblical proportions. 

Once again, someone in a Bester story comes up with a bright idea that fails to take into account a crucial detail. I am reminded somewhat of Bixby’s 1953 It’s a Good Life”; the Bixby is more effective because it tackles the basic idea more directly than this story did.

Hobson’s Choice” • (1952) • short story

America has been pounded flat by war, but its population continues to rise. There is a rational explanation for this oddity, but not one that will make the over-curious statistician investigating the mystery happy.

Not, as one might expect, a Malthusian doom story but something quite different. Bester viewed fantasies of better worlds with considerable distrust; this story offers a moral a bit akin to that of the film Midnight in Paris.

Star Light, Star Bright” • (1953) • short story

The search for a reclusive genius ends in horrible, horrible success.

I guess if I squint at this, I can see similarities to Clifton’s Star Bright”, which is also about a gifted child, but where Clifton’s story ends on an optimistic (if humbling) note, Bester embraces horror. You’re not always screwed if you are a protagonist in a Bester story but it’s a safe bet to assume you are.

They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To • (1963) • novelette

Two survivors encounter each other in the ruins of New York. This could have been a story about two dissimilar people overcoming their fundamental differences or failing to do so. Reader expectations are thwarted by the revelation that the survivors have failed to understand the fundamental nature of their predicament. 

You could put together the Mammoth Book of Protagonists Who Made a Fatal Oversight and about half the stories in it would be by Bester. The other half would be by Robert Sheckley.

Of Time and Third Avenue” • (1951) • short story

A time traveler refuses to ruin a young man’s life by offering a short cut to success, but he cannot resist giving the fellow some encouragement.

This is one of very few Bester stories that ends happily all round.

Isaac Asimov” • (1973) • essay

Bester left SF not because he stopped being able to sell his work but because he found other ways to express his creativity that he enjoyed more and which paid better. This interview is an example of his non-fiction efforts.

The Pi Man” • (1959) • short story

Being able to see the hidden patterns of the world transforms the protagonist into the patterns’ unhappy puppet, committing terrible acts to keep the wheels spinning.

Or perhaps he’s a complete headcase whose justifications for atrocity are insane delusions

Something Up There Likes Me” • (1973) • short story

A last-minute space experiment results in a new form of intelligence and general hilarity. Also millions of corpses, none of which belong to the protagonist or his girl.

This was written for the John W. Campbell memorial anthology, which I should probably review at some point. This was intended to celebrate Campbell’s supposed love of hard science, which is kind of amusing given how much vigorous handwaving Bester does to justify a space satellite suddenly becoming intelligent. We’re talking Ray Bradbury/Anne McCaffrey levels of hardness here. So, perfectly suitable for Astounding. 

My Affair With Science Fiction” • (1974) • essay

Bester discusses his career in SF and what led him away from it (better money doing more interesting things). Having spent a quarter century away from SF, Bester hopes to return to his first love.

Worth reading if only for the account of the lunch he had with John W. Campbell. Campbell spent the lunch trying to browbeat Bester into embracing Dianetics. 

This account is both fascinating and depressing. As Asimov warned Bester as Bester prepared to attempt a comeback, their golden years in SF were long behind them. Bester’s work after his return tended to stumble between flawed and horrid. 

Readable because Bester looks at the world around him with an amused cynicism and doesn’t spare himself. He knows he is as absurd as everyone else. 


A product of their time” is an overused term but apt in this case; I suspect that someone familiar with the field (or American fiction in general) but not with these specific stories could easily work when they had to have been written, by means of clues like the sprinkle of Freudian references and Bester’s attitudes towards sex. 

But … a product of their time” is just a description, not necessarily a condemnation. Bester’s odd mix of artistic ambition and resigned journeyman prose doesn’t seem as if it should have worked and yet in many cases it did. I would recommend this book to your attention if it weren’t that it is almost forty years old and well out of print. You’ll probably have more luck looking for the 1997 collection, Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, which includes many of the same stories.