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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

  Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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Alfred Bester

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Standard Disclaimer:

This is a brief discussion of Alfred Bester and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Bester.

This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Bester: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)

I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Bester tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Bester worthy; in sum, to help you rank Alfred Bester (and the works by Bester listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.

A Few Words About Alfred Bester

The brief article below is what some sites call a “stub”—an admittedly incomplete and possibly inadequate discussion set forth as a sort of placeholder, on the theory that something is better than nothing at all, till such time as I am able to set forth a more fully rounded analysis.

Bester was, at his peak, a good to very good writer, though I fear not an excellent one. But, as with a number of writers of the earlier years of science fiction, because he walked among pygmies, he seemed a giant.

The Demolished Man is, I think, in the long run the better of his two significant novels. It is hurt a bit by what has been called the “pulp” style, which I suppose comes down to short, punchy, and often obvious sentences: his editors didn’t want anything to challenge the vocabulary or attention span of 12- and 13-year olds (that’s speaking of the pulp style in general, not necessarily Bester in particular, though the book does have something of that flavor, which so many detect). Thumbed up quite at random:

He nodded to the receptionist and followed the Latent through the door. Inside, two of the Guild staff were enthusiastically shaking the surprised man’s hand and patting him on the back. Powell joined them for a moment and added his congratulations. It was always a happy day for the Guild when they unearthed another Esper.

I expect the next line to be “I should know. I'm a cop.” Dum dah dum dum—it simply cries out for Jack Webb’s clipped drone. I mean, read it aloud. That is “the pulp style” in its lair.

The book does not succeed owing to any excellence in Bester’s writing, but it does succeed; it does so because behind the naive presentation is a powerful idea that transcends that presentation, and manages to deliver a pretty good kidney punch to the reader. Not a truly great book, but a good one.

On the other hand, The Stars My Destination, though perhaps a bit the lesser book all for all, makes a much more immediate appeal. It is a zinger of a storytelling, and suffers, really, from only one serious flaw, though that one serious indeed: it denies subtlety. This book needed hard editing, but for that place and that time, what we got was what was wanted. Paralleling the Count of Monte Cristo, as it does, is harmless in itself, and in fact Bester really makes quite a roller-coaster ride out of the theme. But he relentlessly beats us to death with ham-fisted symbolism, to make absolutely, positively sure that we GET IT. I think that if one could reach through time and bring the Bester who wrote that book into today, he could easily turn it into a masterwork by recognizing that nowadays we can hear a message that is spoken, or even whispered: we neither need nor want shouting.

The Stars My Destination is less like The Demolished Man than is often suggested. It is the difference between those two books as a pair and the rest of Bester’s work, or anybody else’s work at the time, that makes them seem “alike”; but viewed on their own, they are different. (An analogy might be that The Demolished Man is “Appalachian Spring” while The Stars My Destination is “Rodeo”.)

In the event, though I have mentioned it above, I do not consider The Stars My Destination to be worth more than zero stars (remember, as always, that this is on a personal -5 to +5 rating scale)—readable but not memorable—and so have not included it in the list below. Regrettably, his sf work beyond those two novels doesn’t bear conmsideration.

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Other Alfred Bester Resources

Alfred Bester Resources on the Web

Remarkably—for such a lionized writer—there does not seem to be any dedicated Bester web site, though there are several good pages available. These seem the most utile:

There are also individual-book reviews; here is a small sampling:

For more, Google Is Your Friend.

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Alfred Bester Resources in Print

There is Alfred Bester by Jad Smith.

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Notable Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by Alfred Bester **

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