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Needles

 by James M. Palmer

(originally published in Singularity)

Sometimes, the good stuff is hard to find. Sometimes, the good stuff is old stuff, the classics that many of us grew up with. Sadly, much of this work is hard to find, out of print. But some of it is finding its way back onto bookstore shelves, if you know where to look. Thatís where this column comes in.

Welcome to Needles, a column which seeks to explore older genre classics, to reevaluate them and introduce them to new readers. This column will attempt to seek out those needles in the haystack that is contemporary SF, with one caveat: the works discussed here will all be available in print. They may be available only through a small press publisher, but they will be readily available. Our purpose here is to get people to read these books, and it doesnít do you any good if the only way to find them is to happen upon them in a used bookstore somewhere. Now that you know the rules, letís play the game.

The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

I decided to start with Alfred Bester because he seemed like the right person to get the ball rolling, and because his books were the first that I found back in print several years ago, staring back at me from a B. Dalton bookstore shelf in Vintage trade paperback editions. After scanning the front and back covers, I knew I must have them.

These two novels, along with a handful of short stories, remain as fresh and exciting today as when they were first published back in the fifties. Bester brought weird ideas and colorful backdrops to these works, and theyíre a real treat to read. Heís one of my favorite authors, and anyone who wants to either learn to write better, or to simply know some of the best the genre has to offer, should read his work.

In The Demolished Man (1951), (winner of the first Hugo Award for Best Novel) Bester gives us an intriguing, locked door murder mystery in which the killer is known, but his motivation is not. Not even by the killer. Set in a 24th century New York City safeguarded by telepaths, rich capitalist Ben Reich plots to kill his biggest business rival, Craye DíCourtney. To get away with murder in a society where that is impossible, Bester comes up with some pretty ingenious plot devices to outsmart the telepaths, or Espers, such as getting one of his advertising people to write a song so catchy it gets stuck in his head, masking his thoughts:

Tension, apprehension,

And dissension have begun.

These three elements become central ideas in the novel.

And if this wasnít clever enough, Bester also used odd word spacings and different fonts, turning text into pictures and giving a solid impression of the Espersí jumbled, instantaneous mental communication. A typographerís worst nightmare, but one of the finer elements of this novel. (Another clever use of typography is in the name of one of the Espers, spelled @kins. Itís especially clever considering the importance of that symbol in todayís email-driven society.)

At its heart, The Demolished Man is basically a mystery story, but its fantastic setting combined with Besterís over the top storytelling make this a great book, one that still reads well today.

Besterís second novel, The Stars My Destination (1956), is just as good as its predecessor. In Stars, originally titled Tiger, Tiger, an uneducated savage named Gulliver Foyle has been stranded in space aboard the derelict ship Nomad. When another ship passes by, ignoring his rescue signals, Gully plots his revenge. Eventually rescued by a weird cult that lives in the asteroid belt called the Scientific People, who tattoo his face with tiger stripes, Gully makes his way to Earth and a rendevous with the ship and its crew that left him for dead.

In this novel, Bester uses another popular psi power: teleportation. People have learned to "jaunte," thousands of miles with a single thought. Gully learns this trick as well so he can track down those responsible for leaving him in space. What follows is a long revenge tale that carries us from Earth to the asteroid belt and Mars.

I found every word of this book captivating. The characters are interesting and engaging, and the futuristic setting is fully realized and set far enough in the future not to seem dated, at least at first. I say at first, because if you start to look at the work more closely, youíll realize that it is, like all SF, and all fiction for that matter, a product of its time. But this seems to be more the case with SF because it is more deeply rooted in the science of the time. Sure, we didnít have space colonies in 1956, but we thought about them. As science opens new frontiers today in such fields as quantum physics and nanotechnology, weíre seeing more novels on those subjects. When the scientific principle in an old story or novel is disproved, that story or novel becomes outre and forgotten.

And it isnít just the science. Today, Orwellís 1984 seems quaint with that seminal year now nine years down the tube. Frightfully intriguing, but quaint. In that year we saw that Big Brother wasnít looming over us, and we breathed a sigh of relief and moved on (I like to think this novel had a hand in preventing such a thing from happening). In that year we watched as William Gibson painted us a new dream of computer networks and mirrorshades (this one fell short of the mark too, but at least we have greedy corporations and the Internet). Now any mention of a year in a work of fiction that has passed us by without the events in said work being possible, and it kicks us out of the story, suspends our suspension of disbelief, makes us laugh at how silly the writer was for thinking we would have a lunar base by 1978, or have soldiers going through Basic on Pluto in the 1990s. Joe Haldeman offered some good advice about dealing with inaccurate dates in his introduction to the Avon edition of The Forever War , about his novelís 1996 setting: "Think of it as a parallel universe." Thatís as good advice as any when dealing with such anachronisms, because the dates really donít matter, as long as the plot is intriguing and the characters are interesting. Itís silly to be bothered by the dates anyway. SF writers never set out to be prophets. They arenít psychic. Weíve just been conditioned by the mainstream to believe that SF is supposed to be predictive, that the only reason people read that "hokey stuff" is to get a grip on the future. This was an attempt to make SF "respectable", to make the genre look "grown up." But any SF writer will tell you that predicting isnít in their job description. SF can only extrapolate, play the games of "what if" and "if this goes on." What happens when something in the historical chain of events that lead up to the novelistís setting breaks? What happens when something happens that negates the events in the novel, making them impossible to occur? Berlin Walls crumble, Communism vanishes, scientific theories are disproved and replaced by new ones.

These things none of us can foresee, but that doesnít mean we canít continue playing the game. I mean come on, itís so much fun.

Speaking of science, there are a few scientific gaffes in Stars, such as Gullyís rapid rise from ignorance to intelligence, though at least the change doesnít happen overnight, and Saul Dagenham, the man hunting Foyle, who is so radioactive he can only be around people for a few minutes, though is immune to said radioactivity himself. And donít get me started on the teleportation and telepathy, though Bester cleverly explains deals with the discovery of jaunteing. Still, I can accept these as a cool concepts and plot devices because this book ainít about the science, and doesnít need to be. This doesnít keep Bester from adding in some cool, pre-cyberpunk gadgetry though, such as Foyle having his body turned into a killing machine, with the ability to speed himself up to supernormal proportions when he taps a button implanted in his teeth. Throw in an intersolar war, and a dangerous substance known as PyrE, and you have the makings of a great book that will keep your eyes glued to its pages until the end.

The Stars My Destination has all the qualities that make The Demolished Man enjoyable. In it you will find the same weird typography and Besterís love of language, most notable in Gullyís savage way of speaking, as in this example:

"Listen a me, all you! Listen, man! Gonna sermonize, me. Dig this, you!

This gutter tongue is very effective at separating Gully Foyle from those around him, and makes his transition into education and intelligence that much more pronounced.

The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are two of the best the genre has to offer. On the most basic level, these books illustrate what a master storyteller can do with the act of language itself, turning mere words on a page into crystalline cathedrals.

If you havenít read these yet, or anything else by Bester, I feel bad for you. Bad because you have left out one of the pillars of the SF genre, a writer who influenced many of todayís greatest writers. Go ahead, give ole Alfie a try. I think youíll be glad you did.

 

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