Virtual Unrealities by Alfred Bester

New York: Vintage Books, 1997; $14.00 tpb; 384 pages

reviewed by Arthur D. Hlavaty

The protagonist of John Updike's serious literary novel, Of the Farm (1965), spends some time reading a science-fiction story. Neither author nor title is supplied, but we get sufficient description to know that the story in question is Alfred Bester's "Adam and No Eve."

In 1975 Peter Passell and Leonard Ross wrote a book proclaiming The Best in all fields that came to their minds, from restaurants to financial strategies. Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination was their choice for the best science-fiction novel of all.

Last year, Vintage Books, publishers of Faulkner, Nabokov, and that lot, brought their brand of quality-paperback immortality to two Alfred Bester novels: the aforementioned The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. Now they have followed those with a presumably definitive collection of Bester's short fiction.

Who is Bester, what is he, that all these respectable swains adore him? Rereading his short stories in the new book, Virtual Unrealities, I am strengthened in the belief that he may be the ideal writer to show to Mainstream Lit as an example of sf at its best.

Academic supporters of sf, like the well-intentioned members of any Establishment speaking up for any marginalized group, use two arguments: "They are fascinating in their unique way," and yet "Deep down inside they are Just Like Us." Ideally, one reports examples that simultaneously display both qualities, but these are hard to find. Instead, the sf lover goes on about Theodore Surgeon's eloquent prose and compassionate characterization, soft-pedaling the extent to which many of his tales are simply good mimetic fiction, with a rocketship or other such device stuck on. Or one speaks of the wondrous metaphysical strangeness of Philip K. Dick's work and tries to puff up his real, but limited, achievements in character development to a similar level.

In Bester's classic work (well represented here), it is all of a piece. The prose sparkles; the sfnal inventiveness is central and crucial. The textual difficulties are not of the "monopole magnet mines in the asteroid belt" variety—scientific or technological complexities told in a shorthand comprehensible only to those familiar with the field—nor are they mere "look at me" cleverness. Chekhov said that a gun described in a story should be fired before the story's end, and Bester usually took the same attitude to the literary devices he armed himself with. (Minor example: A character in "Oddy and Id" has a lisp that seems merely annoying until the story's titular figure proves to have Powers and the lisper describes him with the appropriately Biblical-sounding "When he hath been taught to know what he doth, he will be a God.")

Bester provided his own critical term for his distinctive writing quality; in "Oddy and Id," a character spoke of "dazzlement and enchantment," and that phrase has, with good reason, been picked up by critics such as Damon Knight. The character intends this technique as a distraction, and it could be said that is precisely how his creator uses it: to divert the reader (in both senses) while presenting a worldview as grim as anything in Malzberg or Ballard. Bester wrote brilliant, charming, dazzling, enchanting prose to tell us of a universe where life is almost uniformly oppressive to a human race that deserves no better; where the constraints of nature and civilization serve mainly to keep people from being even worse to one another; where inventiveness, scientific or artistic, is at best a source of individual and often illusory escape, and at worst, an inseparable ally of what is most brutal and destructive in us.

This is of course, a highly Freudian worldview; sometimes Freud is invoked by name, but at times the characters (and perhaps their author) do not notice the Freudian elements for the same reason that fish do not notice water. Today that worldview seems less like obvious truth and more like a product of its times, and the distance that produces makes it easier to see that view as neither necessary for nor opposed to great art. Bester understandably saw his message as a bitter pill, but rather than merely sugarcoat it with sprightly prose, he sought to fuse the two into a complete and inseparable confection. This often produced something wondrous.

"Star Light, Star Bright" and "Oddy and Id" are the bluntest representation of Bester's view of humanity freed of constraint: the child wishing into nonexistence anyone who bothers him, or the adult child subconsciously making the universe submit. In these stories there is no hope of successful opposition.

Believing that people are brutal and devouring ids under a thin veneer of civilization, Bester often saw human creativity as inextricably bound to that destructiveness. It is this union of the artist and the criminal that is often considered Bester's defining theme. John Stapp, in "Time Is the Traitor," developed a genius for business prediction after the same disaster that made him a serial killer, and his associates dare not fool with the latter for fear of destroying the former. Peter Marko, the narrator of "The Pi Man," has a Gift that apparently requires him to do evil as well as good. And "Fondly Fahrenheit" has multiplex relationships between genius and crime, human and android, that require/permit the story's famous use of pronouns and tenses.

Flight as well as fight is an option open to Bester's people. Throughout the stories we encounter characters who wish to flee from reality, and to Bester this may be an immoral goal, but it is by no means an unreasonable one. In "Hobson's Choice," masses are fleeing an intolerable future, only to find pasts they are even less fit to cope with. It may be that Bester was even more ambivalent about the escapist aspects of creativity than about the violence of a John Stapp or a Peter Marko, which he suggests might be separated from the creativity if we had the knowledge. In fact, the problems and paradoxes of science-fictional escape may be even more of a recurrent theme in Bester's short fiction.

One of the many things "5,217,009" is about is the "baby dreams" (not coincidentally the plots of many sf stories before and since) into which people flee to escape the harshness of life. The story I remembered was one in which the powerful, but by no means omnipotent alien remittance man Solon Aquila, having shattered the artist Jeffrey Halsyon, puts him back together by teaching him to create better, presumably adult dreams. But that is not what the story says. Earlier in the story Aquila speaks of curing Halsyon, but at the end all that he promises is that Halsyon will purge others of their dreams as Aquila purged him of his. Could it be that after the dazzlement and enchantment wear off, we are left with nothing more than the tale of a cosmic spoilsport?

Two of Bester's other stories deal more briefly with sfnal dreams. "Will You Wait?" suggests that the Devil offers no escape, being every bit as inefficient as purely human agencies. I liked "Of Time and Third Avenue" until shortly after I'd read it, when I realized that it doesn't work. All through the story, the people from the future have warned Oliver Wilson Knight that foreknowledge will make the future meaningless, playing out the game to a known conclusion, so he should return the almanac that would bring him that kind of knowledge. When he surrenders that, he is given a hint that he will be Secretary of the Treasury. I don't know if the subtext was more obvious then than now, but that cabinet position notoriously went to successful bankers. A happy ending, unless one notices that this information seems to have all the problems the time travelers warned would come from the almanac, without its practical advantages. In the context of a time when Bester was successfully subverting the dominant paradigm, while rarely making the sort of blunders that ending appears to be, I am tempted to post-modernize it and treat it as Bester's nasty joke on those readers who want him to furnish their baby dreams.

The reversal of time is one of the essential fantasy/temptations in Bester's work, discredited with the others in "5,217,009" and presented as finally hopeless in "Time Is the Traitor." Its final development comes in "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed." The man who destroys the past to eliminate a rival, and fears that in so doing he may wipe out the world, finds instead that he has merely turned himself into a kind of ghost. But just as "5,217,009" may be colder and more hopeless than it appears on the surface, "Mohammed" undercuts its explicit message of dissolution with the thought that its first-person omniscient narrator, who has gone through the same self-destruction, might be enviable, as well as charming.

"Disappearing Act" may be Bester's ultimate ambivalent look at the linked themes of creativity, time, and escape. It is of course primarily a marvelous satire of the military mind. Asked why he was enjoying the safety of England while brave young men were risking their lives to defend civilization, Lytton Strachey replied that he was the civilization those brave young men were defending. This story is a gloss on that quote, but it says much more. Its protagonists have disappeared into histories of their own imagining, but we do not know whether this escape is something practical (they survive without food) or just another means of self-removal like what overtook the men who murdered Mohammed. (And the kind offices of the military protectors have made it impossible ever to know.)

One thinks of Bester as a Fifties writer (perhaps slopping over into the early Sixties, as Fifties music does) because that's when he did most of the work he's remembered for.

Actually, he had first appeared in an sf magazine in 1939, and he wrote about a dozen stories before going off to write for comics and radio. "Adam and No Eve," probably the best story from the first incursion, is the only one reprinted here.

When he returned in the Fifties, Bester wrote the stories I've already discussed, as well as his two most noted novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Those, by the way, are thoroughgoing delights that I would recommend to one and all as having the virtues of the best short stories, but I would add some manner of warning about their old-time swashbuckler elements. I used to be angry that The Stars My Destination was called that, and not Tiger, Tiger (Bester's original title). That always struck me as a good horrible example of the Space Adventure Title, though not quite as inappropriate as the one stuck on John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit (which entirely takes place on late-20th-century Earth, and uses its title phrase once, as a metaphor). On second thought, however, the book's Count of Monte Cristo plot goes well with a title like that. In The Demolished Man we learn just before the denouement that the bad guy has become "the most dangerous man in the universe," a development neither led up to beforehand nor explained afterwards. No doubt he got hold of a large and potentially lethal Plot Device.

Also in those golden years, Bester wrote a mimetic showbiz novel, with mystery aspects, that he and his hardcover publishers had good reason to call Who He? The paperback publishers demonstrated that sf has no monopoly on dumb renamings by calling it The Rat Race. It has the usual Bester charm, with definite traces of the Bester interior darkness as well. It has no overtly science-fictional or futuristic elements, but it is the only Fifties novel I know of that includes the phrase "male chauvinism." It's been reprinted at least once (in England as The Rat Race), and I would recommend grabbing it if you see it.

In the Sixties, Bester wrote two more stories: "The Flowered Thundermug" and "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To." These had an amusing sort of Hollywood wackiness (I loved "Life"'s tale of the two guys and the television, with its deadpan punch line), but they hardly seemed like major Bester. In fact they represented a farewell to the field, as he moved on to an editorial position with Holiday magazine.

He returned, however, in the Seventies, only to give an unintentional example of his own theme of the unrecoverability of the past. His long-awaited novel, variously called The Indian Giver, Extro, and The Computer Connection, was a major disappointment—a confused farrago of old ideas and gimmicks. The next one, Golem100, was worse, nasty as well as incoherent. Bester seemed to be haranguing his audience about the general evil of humanity and—a theme that had been much more tangential before—the war of the sexes. Either he had now decided to give the message straight, or he felt that the Jack Gaughan illustrations—the best part of the book—provided enough dazzlement and enchantment by themselves. [Charles Platt informs me that Bester provided his own illos, but there were copyright problems. In any event, his talent had decayed to the point where he could no longer get his message across in mere words.]

At this point, he was playing out the final act of one of the great American literary tales: genius (or at least talent) dissolved in alcohol. He retired to rural Pennsylvania, where he gained a reputation as a mean drunk, left his money to his favorite bartender, and died just before SFWA could give him its Grand Master Award.

He left one significant unpublished work, a mimetic novel called Tender Loving Rape, which was posthumously published with its title minimally but cleverly emended to the less offensive Tender Loving Rage. It is a hologram of his career: brilliant start to sodden, cranky, incoherent conclusion.

One likes to hope that with a writer like Bester the major work remains, and the rest is dross. That seems to be happening. Virtual Unrealities is an excellent introduction to Bester. The book begins with the fourteen stories talked about in this review, the ones that might be used to define Canonical Bester, at least in the short forms. As a bonus it adds three more works: a teasing unpublished fragment that ends with the self-referential phrase, "It is easier to begin a thing than to finish it"; a minor Seventies story, "Galatea Galante"; and "The Devil without Glasses" an unpublished story found among Bester's papers. This last, like many of the works now premiering in the Sturgeon collections, strikes me as somewhere between pure "historical value" (interesting only for its connection to better works) and the sort of thing I'd rush out to buy for its own sake. If I had to guess, I'd say that Bester wrote it in the late Forties or early Fifties and couldn't sell it. It has the kinds of ideas he was developing in his best work, but the prose skills aren't there yet.

Virtual Unrealities is a good collection of Bester, but I fear it is only the second best one. One good result of Bester's Seventies return was the publication of a retrospective collection, Starlight. I have to admit that I'd rather Vintage had reprinted that. Starlight contains the fourteen important ones, some lesser fictions, and some nonfiction. The stories from that collection that were left out of the present one are probably about even with what replaced them. "The Four-Hour Fugue," one last look at the criminal/genius theme, was subsumed into Golem100 and might well deserve to be preserved by itself, especially if, as I hope, Golem100 isn't. "Hell Is Forever," like "The Devil without Glasses," might be interesting enough to read even if you didn't know that the author was going to become Alfred Bester, but it's longer and I can see leaving it out as a distraction from the good stuff. "MS. Found in a Champagne Bottle" and "Something Up There Likes Me" are minor.

The memoir, "My Affair with Science Fiction," is Bester at his most charming, but I can see ruling it out of this collection, especially since I wish someone would reprint all of Hell's Cartographers, the book it came from; the other five essays in it—by Robert Silverberg, Brian Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Frederik Pohl, and Damon Knight—also should be brought back.

No, I'm afraid that what I miss is Bester's introductory remarks to the stories. Of course, "Why didn't this book intended to introduce Bester to the Serious Lit audience include his preliminary chit-chat?" hardly requires an answer. Still, I know what I like.

There is no point in sulking. This is the Bester book that's available. If you're a literary type who wants to be turned on to an important sf writer; if you're reading the currently available sf and wondering if there's anything even better; if you want to find out who he is, or read some of the most brilliant and thought-provoking short sf ever written, or just be dazzled and enchanted, buy this book.


I wrote this review for The New York Review of Science Fiction. Charles Platt, who may have been Bester's last friend other than his bartender, offered some helpful information that I have incorporated, but he is not responsible for my conclusions.