Alfred Bester (1913 – 1987) was an American-born science fiction author. Considered one of the great writers of the genre, he is best known for two of his novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (also published as Tiger, Tiger!). He was known for a passionate, energetic writing style, coupled with a love for language and a fascination with wordplay. His best works are treatises on how to write: bursting with imagery, deft language, and clever dialogue that has aged more gracefully than most other science fiction dialogue. (For more on this, you should read the writeups in Tenser, Said The Tensor.)
In addition to his prolific novel and short story writing, Bester was also a major contributor to comics, radio, television, and magazines. Although he was relatively unknown during his lifetime, his works have been rediscovered and are beloved to a new generation of science fiction readers. His legacy lives not only in the characters and stories he helped to create, but in the influence his writing style had on science fiction.
Alfred Bester (or Alfie, as he liked to be called) was born on December 18th, 1913. He grew up on Manhattan Island, and attended school at the University of Pennsylvania. He then briefly attended law school at Columbia University before tiring of it and dropping out.
Bester spent the next several years toying with writing science fiction stories, and meanwhile married Rolly Goulko in 1936. In 1938, Bester submitted The Broken Axiom, a short story, to a competition that contacts of his had arranged so that he could get a start in the business. The story was subsequently published in the April 1938 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Bester's career took off. He continued writing and publishing short stories, mainly for Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, and in 1942 was hired to work for DC Comics.
At DC, Bester wrote for a number of comics, most notably Superman, Batman, and the Green Lantern. He was credited with coming up with Vandal Savage and Solomon Grundy, as well as being the originator of the Green Lantern Oath:
In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight!
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power
Green Lantern's Light!
By the early 1950s, Bester was working for television and radio, mainly on mystery and quiz programs. Notable credits of his at this time include Charlie Chan, The Shadow, and Nick Carter.
It was around this time that Bester began work on his first great novel: The Demolished Man. The book was published in 1951. It tells the story of a future in which telepaths, all members of a large and benevolent guild which enforces strict standards of behavior, exist at every level and in every niche of society, detecting and preventing crime. However, Ben Reich, an extremely charismatic, intelligent, and rich man from an old and rich family, decides to do the unthinkable and murder the owner of a rival company (the first such crime in over a century). Written alternately from the points of view of Reich and Lincoln Powell, a police prefect committed to bringing down Reich, The Demolished Man has gone down as one of the enduring works of science fiction, both for its plot and style of writing (Tension, Apprehension and Dissension have Begun!). The book was given the first Hugo Award, for Best Novel.
Cemented as a Great Science Fiction Author, Bester continued writing short stories, as well as a novel entitled Who He? or The Rat Race in 1953, meant to be a thriller about the world of television. It did not do nearly as well either popularly or critically as The Demolished Man, but selling the film rights gave Bester the spare money that he needed in order to finance a trip across Europe, during which he wrote The Stars my Destination.
The Stars My Destination (known as Tiger! Tiger! in the United Kingdom), published in 1956, is Bester's other great novel. It was, and still is, one of the better books ever written (and certainly my favorite). It is a retelling of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo in a future where humanity has learned to teleport (or "jaunte") great distances — for some, up to 1000 miles. It follows Gulliver Foyle, a man with no dreams and no future, who leads an unlife stranded in a wrecked spaceship for the duration of a hundred and seventy days before being shocked into a career of furious revenge as a result of abandonment by another ship. It was adapted into graphic novel form in 1979 with the help of Byron Preiss and Howard Chaykin (although only the the first book of a planned two was completed), and was at one point adapted into a radio show, data on which are unfortunately sparse. To give you an idea of Bester's writing style, here are the Dickensian first and last two paragraphs of the first chapter:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying
but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice
but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks
but nobody loved it.
All the habitable worlds of the Solar System were occupied. Three planets and eight satellites and eleven million million people swarmed in one of the most exciting ages ever known, yet minds still yearned for other times, as always. The Solar System seethed with activity
fighting, feeding, and breeding, learning the new technologies that spewed forth almost before the old had been mastered, girding itself for the first exploration of the far stars in deep space; but — "Where are the new frontiers?" the Romantics cried.
It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways. The Classicists and Romantics who hated it were unaware of the potential greatness of the twenty-fifth century. They were blind to a cold fact of evolution, that progress stems from the clashing merger of antagonistic extremes, out of the marriage of pinnacle freaks. Classicists and Romantics alike were unaware that the Solar System was trembling on the verge of a human explosion that would transform man and make him the master of the universe.
It is against this seething background of the twenty-fifth century that the vengeful history of Gulliver Foyle begins.
After The Stars My Destination, Bester had all but had it with being a science fiction writer. By the end of the 1950s, he was a columnist and book reviewer for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a writer of celebrity gossip and nonfiction for a column in Rogue magazine, and an interviewer and editor (eventually Senior Editor) for Holiday magazine. He took advantage of these positions to attack what he thought science fiction had become, sometimes refusing to publish reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction of books he found especially atrocious, instead penning columns about what was wrong with the genre.
Although Bester wrote almost no science fiction during this period, he wrote a number of articles, some related to science or tangentially to science fiction (including the absurd and hilarious Gourmet Dining in Outer Space), and traveled around the world, interviewing and writing.
After Holiday, where Bester had done most of his writing in the 1960s, fell apart in 1970, he returned to the world of science fiction, writing several short stories, as well as publishing three more novels — The Computer Connection in 1975, Golem100 in 1980, and The Deceivers in 1981. Unfortunately, these were relatively unknown, and Bester's popularity and health were well into decline.
Although he was recognized as a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Bester was eventually moved into a critical-care facility, where almost nobody noticed his decline. A story goes that Harlan Ellison repeatedly called the hospital claiming to be a reporter for USA Today in order to get Bester better care.
Alfred "Alfie" Bester died on September 30th, 1987 at the age of 73, leaving his estate to his bartender, the only man to whom he still felt a connection. After his death, interest in and readership of his books have skyrocketed, with new editions of his books and stories produced continually and a number of short stories (as well as two of his novels) published for the first time. Alfred Bester will live on as one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, and a key figure in the development of science fiction. Writes Harry Harrison in the introduction to the 1996 edition of The Demolished Man:
"To know Alfie was a great and personal pleasure. The last time I saw him we sat for an hour at a table on the ferry pontoon in Venice. It was a warm spring and we drank cool wine, rocking gently when the vaporetti went by. We talked and laughed and parted. He died before we could meet again.
"Thank you, Alfie, thank you very, very much."
A most likely incomplete listing of Bester's written works follows. Those titles with ors in the middle were published under two different titles.