First Thoughts on Alfred Bester

A writer I interviewed two weeks ago for my Billy Batson project told me a long, sad story about science fiction writer Alfred Bester. A couple of days later I visited William Fiedler at the Gallery Bookstore, one of the last science fiction/pulp bookstores here in Chicago. The Gallery is easy to find. Just take the Red or the Brown line to Belmont and, once you’re off the train, walk to the Lake. You’ll see it, on your right.

Fiedler had two copies of Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, which won the Hugo. I bought the cheaper of the two, a $35 copy of the 2nd printing–without the dust jacket (I would have paid closer to $500 for the one with the jacket). First serialized by H.L. Gold in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952 and published by Chicago-based Shasta a year later, the novel is a futuristic murder mystery about a high-powered, vengeful gambler and the telepathic cop who’s out to get him. The story begins with the following paragraph, Bester’s space-age revision, I think, of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

In the endless universe there is nothing new, nothing different. What may appear exceptional to the minute mind of man may be inevitable to the infinite Eye of God. This strange second in life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity, encounter…all may be reproduced over and over on the planet of a sun whose galaxy revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already.

My writing students–and sometimes my colleagues–will ask, “Is this original? How do I express my own thoughts? How will I know?” But this passage, like its ancient Biblical equivalent, seems to suggest that, all long, we’ve been asking the wrong questions. But, then again, “all may be reproduced”–may be, but not with any certainty.

Also, much later in the book, as Lincoln Powell, the psychic cop, pursues Ben Reich, the gambler, across an asteroid made to resemble a jungle resort, Bester writes, “The hippos hit the barrier first in a blind, blundering rush.” A “herd of hippos,” that is, as we learn just one paragraph earlier, along with “swambats and the crocodiles” and, later, “the wapiti, the zebra, the gnu…heavy, pounding herds.”

Lincoln Powell, it turns out, can also talk with space animals when he’s tracking a villain.

So, although you don’t need me to tell you so, read The Demolished Man, and then go back to the Gallery and read Charles Saunders, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Fritz Leiber. Ecclesiastes, space hippos, telepaths, elephants. It’s all there, including several pages of what looks like concrete poetry. I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in years.

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