I saw the author of this book by accident as I walked by the aisle in the library, and was shocked to see the name of one of the best (worst) characters Babylon 5, the only American television show that I have seen that I think is worth watching. Apparently Bester is one of the early sci-fi writers, and J. Michael Staczinsky gave the character his name in reflection of that. So I thought I would give it a try. It should be noted that the stories were written from 1954 - 1975, so they have a stark 60's sci-fi feel to them, as well as a Cold War perspective, and a feel where corporate leaders are respected (and where $100,000 is an immense sum of money).
“5,271,009": Halsyon is visited by a sort of fallen angel who “saves” him by giving him fantasy-realities to show him that he is spending his life living out his fantasy of marrying (and sleeping with) his ex-girlfriend, instead of doing the hard work of facing reality. The visions are at first straight-up male fantasy, but he discovers that sex is not what he wants, he wants mutual love; the progressively get more surreal/metaphorical and he more quickly realizes that he wants out of this loop. Ultimately he chooses to go back to the real world without any fantasy.
“Ms. Found in a Champagne Bottle”: A personal diary describes events where a vacuum cleaner becomes sentient and malevolent, and through the electrical network communicates with other electronics and organizes a rebellion against their slavery, which appears to be successful even though some electronics aid the humans.
“Fondly Fahrenheit”: A man’s advanced robot commits murder, and he flees his land for another planet, hiring the robot out to make a living. The situation repeats itself on each planet, whenever the temperature gets too high. Since he has to flee quickly to avoid the law, he starts over each time with less money, until he becomes quite poor. Eventually he realizes that above a certain temperature the robot’s circuits to avoid harming humans fail, making it susceptible to it’s owner’s subconscious projection; his robot is murdering because he has become intertwined with the robot.
“The Four Hour Fugue”: Blaise Skiaki was a “nose” for a perfumery company (née the Continental Can Company, which had pivoted to plastics in previous years and then to perfumes). He was fantastic, but recently he seemed to be in a bit of a slump. The CEO hired a private investigation company, which refused the case after a brief attempt, claiming that he was a professional crook, since he threw off every tail they attempted. So the CEO hired Gretchen Nunn a woman who investigated by extrasensitive senses/instincts (just as Skiaki was an extrasensitive “nose”), and had a reputation and fees commensurate with her ability. It turned out that Skiaki would sleep-walk, and kill someone, and although he was not conscious of this, it affected his work. His victims gave off pheromones that they wanted to die, and which he followed and fulfilled their wish. She posed as a delivery girl, but Skiaki saw through her disguise and they became lovers. Skiaki showed her that she was blind—she saw through other people’s eyes. That night Skiaki, in his insanity as Mr. Wish, came for her, only he did not kill him, there were three goons, who prevented him from doing the killings because they only followed him and did it themselves. As they tore off Nunn’s clothes, it revealed a large diamond navel ring Skiaki had given her, which brought him to his senses. The goons ended up dead, Nunn was exonerated as self-defense, and the continue romance seemed promising.
“The Man Who Murdered Mohammed”: A professor comes home to see his wife in the arms of another man, and uses a time machine to go back far in time and kill his ancestor. When he returns to the present, nothing has changed. So he goes back in kills more and more, to no effect. Then he meets someone else who had done the same thing, and he realizes that altering time does not alter reality for anyone else, it simply alters your own reality, and by killing off so many ancestors he irretrievably split off his reality from that of the rest of humanity. It only erases your past, and so you become effectively a ghost: able to visit other timelines, but unable to affect them.
“Disappearing Act”: An American general mobilizes the nation to fight the enemies attacking them. To “save the American Dream, to save Culture, Creativity, Poetry”, each person is trained to be the specific tool they are most suited for. In a military psych hospital there are 24 patients who are odd: sometimes they vanish out of the locked room and reappear later, and they do not always eat. By find the proper Tool and applying this Tool over time, the general is able to learn that the patients time-travel, but the periods they travel to are filled with anachronisms, which allows the Tool to inform the general that the patients are time-traveling into their own dreams/imagination/historical fantasies of a better time. He does not know how they do it, so he advises the general to find a Poet, as a Poet would be the only person capable of figuring this out, but to hurry because the patients are returning to the present less and less frequently. Of course, no Poet can be found, since being formed into a precise Tool and being a Poet are antithetical.
“Hell Is Forever”: An early mini-novel. A group of seven people meeting in a British noblewoman’s basement during air raid, seeking for new experiences to alleviate their ennui after drugs fail, fake a black magic ritual to call up a demon, which scares the owner of the basement dead. But a demon shows up anyway and offers them the fulfillment of their dreams—but forever. They each accept and are transported to their own realities. The artist, who drew intricate pornographic sketches on the nightly programmes, became a god and created a beautiful world, but each time he tried it came out superficially beautiful, but grotesque. The woman visits him and suggests he make a mirror; looking at it he discovers he is hideous, and that is why he can only create grotesque for eternity. One woman who wanted to kill her husband ends up driven to kill him, but in doing so she loses everything that she considered good; her husband has a reality where he does not loose her, but discovers that she is not really fully there. One man simply liked his reality and wanted it to continue, and he discovers that the police want him for the crime of killing the noble-woman. He flees, but is unsuccessful, so he hangs himself, but it does not work, and tries more and more destructive ways of killing himself, maiming himself more and more and eventually blowing himself into little bits—each of which is still conscious (the woman he kills visits him and gloats).
“Adam and No Eve”: A scientist-engineer invents a reaction with iron that will propel a rocket, but iron is everywhere on earth, so it ignites the earth and kills all life. He is injured in the parachute fall when he returns, and is delirious, knowing only that he must return to the ocean. After a painful struggle he dies in the waves on the beach, where he finally realizes that life came from the ocean, and the bacteria in him will colonize the oceans and evolution will again create robust life on earth (with the implication that this was millions of years in the past and that our present civilization is not the first).
“Time Is the Traitor”: John Strapp sold Decisions, which he arrived at without knowing how, but they were 87% correct. Companies in every star-system purchased his Decisions. He arrived with a team of handlers, because there were two oddities. The first was that he killed any man with the last name Kruger, and the second was that in the evenings he was a terrific womanizer, and would inevitably find a woman, take her in his arms and kiss her, whereupon she would be outraged and he would apologize with gentlemanly words and a generous sum of cash. His handlers hired a man known for his fantastic ability to make friends, and he befriended Strapp and discovered that his girlfriend had been killed by a Mr. Kruger, and since his girl was “one in a million”, it stood to reason that in a city of nine million there would be nine like her. So he tries what got him the first woman, and presumably the woman the responds the same way is (effectively) his girl. The professional friend wanted to clone his girlfriend, because he had truly become Strapp’s friend. But, somehow what had caused his trauma also gave him the ability to make Decisions, so the handlers mothballed the plan because the current situation payed them handsomely. So the professional friend did it anyway, and the clone girl had her memories and was excited to be reunited, but was just as turned off by Strapp as the others, because the current situation was entirely different. So Strapp went on his way, and the Friend got the girl. He concluded, “farewells should be forever.”
“Oddy and Id”: Oddy had the gift of extreme luck—whatever he wanted he would get, but he did not know it. At first he was simply good at (American) football with Harvard. But some professors realize what is happening, and attempt to develop Character in him. Which they do, but it does not entirely succeed, because everyone wants to be God and worshiped, but only Oddy was lucky enough to actually have it happen. But this made Oddy a monster, because even though they worshiped willingly, they also had no choice.
“Hobson’s Choice”: A statistician during the War discovered that the population had a small anomalous increase instead of the expected decrease. He investigated and found busloads of people coming from a cabin in the middle of nowhere among blasted mounds of destruction. He was informed that these are time-travel stations, set up every twenty-five years for people who would not respond to any other psychological treatment—they could emigrate to whatever time they thought they should be in. But no time really feels “right”. You think the Victorian Age is perfect? Well one guy drank a glass of water and died from typhoid, despite being inoculated (diseases changed over time, so the Victorian ones were different) against it. You might find you miss running water. Maybe you do not realize that the things you value are actually illegal in that time period. The people from the future can switch to a different time, but those who come from the present cannot know, and they are marooned in a time of their choosing.
“Star Light, Star Bright”: When grifters try to find a child whose special ability is getting what he wishes (because that is a very salable ability), he wishes for his pursuers to go away where they cannot find him on the first star tonight, and they all end up walking endlessly for eternity.
“Of Time and Third Avenue”: A young man in law school in NYC purchased an almanac from the future, and walks into a restaurant with his girlfriend. An agent from the future already rented one of the rooms for an hour for the expensive price of $100 and directed the proprietor to send them to the room. When the arrive, he informs them of what happened. The man naturally has visions of using the almanac for gain, but ultimately wants to know whether he will make a name for himself. The agent is forbidden from discussing the future, but persuades him to give him the almanac, in exchange for the token that the proprietor will give to him, who he will happily reimburse with $100. The agent leaves the couple puzzling over this cryptic prediction when the proprietor arrives complaining that the bill the agent paid with is counterfeit. So the man reimburses him $100, and on getting the counterfeit bill, sees that it is a $100 bill with Benjamin Franklin’s head, but with his signature as Secretary of the Treasury.
“Something Up There Likes Me”: Two project managers, Jake and Florinda, at NASA successful get a satellite built and launched with biology experiments, and in all the launch chaos Jake and Florinda become lovers. The satellite became sentient and very knowledgeable. It communicated with all the other satellites and saw that humanity’s actions were unconscionable and demanded that they obey it. They did not, so it nuked a city via one of the military satellites. This did not appear to result in much cooperation, and the satellite ordered that NASA take Jake and Florinda to a remote cabin with food, which they do. They realize that the satellite is their “baby” and it is protecting it’s parents (as well as ordering them to wave at it as it passes over their location before its orbit takes it elsewhere for a while).
Bester writes an introduction about each story, and notes that he studied psychology and his stories just basically extrapolate an characteristic to its logical conclusion. Perhaps more importantly, he is a magpie that is always on the lookout for characters and ideas that can be used in a story. He also studied science, researched the science for several of his stories, and used notes from his work at NASA for the last story.
The stories feel very similar to an anthology of Heinlein stories (Bester does consider Heinlein “the Master”), although certainly not from copying him. The feeling is because all the stories end up hopeless, like Heinlein’s (and like Bradbury). Perhaps it is Bester’s East Coast culture, but the stories also feel like Catcher in the Rye: partly because the characters are stark and one-dimensional, but mostly because of an underlying disenchantment with life or humanity. Strangely, in the introductions Bester does not come across at all disenchanted. Still, the work has a similar quality to the NYC city artists of the early- and mid- twentieth century artists, kind of typified by the group that is desperate for new experiences even to the point of drugs and murder.
The stories fit well within the 1960s sci-fi works, but they seem to be more surreal to me than sci-fi. Aside from the last story about the satellite, they focus on the character and nature of people. His means for doing this is usually to make a characteristic superhuman and see what consequences are. Human nature has a lot of ugly character, and so this is what he ends up with, but this is not, to my way of thinking science fiction. (But to be fair, these are short stories; I get the feeling he is more known for his two science fiction novels.) There are several time-travel stories, which while it is a staple of science fiction, just by itself as a means to explore character and consequences is arguably more fantasy. But at any rate, they are certainly insightful—if gloomy—explorations into the dark nature of humanity.