Friday, December 18, 2015

Alfred Bester - Godfather of modern fiction

Happy birthday to Alfred Bester - sometimes known as "the Godfather of modern fiction"

Bester was born on December 18, 1913 in New York, and apparently remained a New Yorker for the rest of his life.

Although best remembered now for his print science fiction, the truth is that he actually only worked in print SF sporadically, and produced far less than many of his contemporaries with similar reputations.

Consider: according to this bibliography he produced only 5 SF novels (plus one finished by Roger Zelazny in 1998) during his lifetime, and 45 short stories (plus one that was never published) - in comparison to other big names of the era, this is really not very much.  So what was he doing?

Well, the truth is that for part of it he was working quite a bit in SF.

Bester started strong, with a prize winning entry The Broken Axiom in the Thrilling Wonder Stories contest in 1939 [1] and over the next 3 years published 14 of his shorts, including what is probably his most famous story Adam and No Eve (still very well regarded today) but then seems to drop out of sight until the 50s.  Why?  Because instead of the pulps and traditional publishing in the early years he spent a fair portion of his time working in the growing comic industry (Superman, Green Lantern, the Phantom) and then in 1946 turned his hand to radio, penning the scripts for several popular radio shows of the time.

He returned to the pulps in 1950 with a psychological SF story Oddy and Id submitted to Campbell at Amazing, but it wasn't long after that Bester joined several others in jumping ship when Campbell went on his dianetics jag.  This led him into a new phase of his writing during the 50s, producing several of the stories he's most remembered for (including Fondly Fahrenheit - which I actually first came across in the radio adaptation Bester wrote for CBS Mystery Theatre! A copy is available here, titled "The Walking Dead") as well as of course his two iconic novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.  This period seems to be where he most deeply develops the psychological conundrums and exploration of the human identity that mark his work, as compared to the highly technical speculative engineering or political musings of contemporaries like Heinlein and Asimov.

In the 1960s, he disappears again- why? Because he moved on to a lucrative career in non-fiction.

It starts off innocently enough, with Bester trying his hand at non-SF fiction for magazines, but then he moves off into something more like journalism - travel journalism to be specific.  All through the 60s, Bester wrote consistently for the magazine Holiday, and was particularly well known for his interviews with famous figures such as Sir Edmund Hillary and various Hollywood stars.  He wasn't entirely outside the SF community however: during this period he continued to produce reviews of the new work his peers were producing, as well as interviews with stars of the era like the Heinlein piece I mentioned earlier.

In the 70s, he returned to the fold again, however he published only sporadically - mainly novels like Golem 100 along with a handful of short stories, interspersed with various anthologies or collections.

So, here we have a man who was engaged during four very distinct phases of science fiction - not continuously like some of his peers, but in waves, which is most fascinating.  It's interesting to see the differences between his work in these phases, as well as the sometimes strange innovations he comes up with to present his narratives - things like odd page arrangements, novel punctuation, etc to express mental communication (sometimes between characters, sometimes between parts of the same character).

One of the most interesting things about his earlier periods of publishing, I think, is the way in which his other work is clearly influencing his writing.  The format of comics and radio plays is obviously very different from ordinary literary prose, and you can tell in some cases that he's reaching for ways to achieve the same effect on a page of text as he could over the airwaves or in the speech bubbles of a comic.

Bester was an innovative writer, and his impact on the genre is, I think, clear - mainly in the way in which styles and topics evolved over the years.  He took SF into the mind, which was a bit of departure from the glorious adventures of Leigh Bracket or the engineering fantasies of the "hard SF" most often published in the popular pulps like Amazing and Galaxy.  In some ways, I think he was paving the way for the more introspective "social SF" of the New Wave and even our current era, and there's still a lot that up-and-coming SF writers can learn from him.


1. Bester claims that when he interviewed Heinlein for Publishers Weekly years later, he learned that Heinlein had decided not to submit to that particular contest, instead choosing to try his luck with a paying market - making $70 on his sale, while Bester won only $50.

Additional reading

No comments: