Alfred Bester began writing in the late thirties and early forties, and as with many sf writers of the time, much of his output consists of short stories -- a form I've been slighting in these reviews. He's also the author of two exceptional novels:
"The Demolished Man" (***+) was the first novel to win a Hugo award. I don't suppose it can be described as a murder mystery, because we're shown every phase of the murder. The problem is to get away with it, in a future society which includes numerous telepaths.
In a way, the telepaths are the most interesting part of the book. Threading his way among the simplistic cliches of the genre, Bester presents a future in which society has uneasily accomodated itself to the existence of telepaths. Telepaths aren't hated and feared, but they do make people uneasy. Telepaths don't rule countries or corporations or criminal empires, but they do make good livings as psychologists, as police, or at other professions in which the ability to read minds can be useful. They are also still inventing their own society -- learning, for instance, how one goes about being polite when it's impossible to be dishonest.
Against this background, Ben Reich, one of the most successful businessmen in the solar system, is facing ruin. The only chance he sees for survival is to murder his rival, D'Courtney. Step one is to commit the perfect crime. Step two is to avoid giving himself away every time he talks to a telepath. Step three is to deal with the fact that Powell -- the police esper in charge of the investigation -- knows immediately who the killer is. Which is a long way from being able to prove it in a court of law.
It was the quintessence of every melodic cliche Reich had ever heard. No matter what melody you tried to remember, it invariably led down the pat of familiarity to "Tenser, Said the Tensor." Then Duffy began to sing:
Eight, sir; seven sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
And dissension have begun.
"The Stars My Destination" (****-) ("Tiger! Tiger!" in the UK) is also a product of the fifties. It's aged a bit better than "The Demolished Man", perhaps because it doesn't lean as heavily on a single gimmick. There is a gimmick, though: Just as the earlier book featured a society accomodating itself to the presence of telepaths, this one features a society accomodating itself to 'jaunting' -- teleportation. How do you imprison people who can jaunte out of jail free? How do you secure life and possessions if criminals can jaunte into your bedroom? But there's a lot more to the book than that gimmick.
For a start, there's Gulliver Foyle -- a complete nonentity who is stranded aboard a drifting spaceship. A personal comment excerpted from his personnel file reads: "A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition. Energizes at minimum. The stereotype Common Man. Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key. Not recomended for promotion. Has reached a dead end." As the book unfolds, we will see that he is indeed the Common Man -- in the sense that that comment is a good description of twenty-fifth century humanity.
After six months of drifting in space, another spaceship comes close enough to rescue him -- and chooses not to. For the first time in his life, Foyle has a motivation -- revenge. To an extent, Bester deliberately patterned this book after "The Count of Monte Cristo", but Dumas' hero started off as an admirable man; Foyle does not. Eventually, however, he is forced -- perhaps for the first time in his life -- to start making moral choices. To complicate matters, while Foyle is looking for his revenge, a lot of people are looking for Foyle. It takes us a while to learn why -- there were a number of strange things about those spaceships-- and in the process we get to see a great deal of a solar system, and a society, that has a rot at its root.
"The Stars My Destination" is a double story of a man and a society, both capable of greatness. Despite the title, humanity is bottled up in one solar system at a time when it needs to grow, and like Foyle, is stunted. Also like Foyle, it has the potential to break free of its limitations or to destroy itself in the attempt.
"Nice day," Foyle remarked.
"Always a lovely day somewhere, sir," the robot beamed.
"Awful day," Foyle said.
"Always a lovely day somewhere, sir," the robot responded.
"Day," Foyle said. "Always a lovely day somewhere, sir," the robot said.
Foyle turned to the others. "That's me," he said...
"The Demolished Man" and "The Stars My Destination" are outstanding novels. The passage of four decades has weakened their appeal, but most readers would probably still find them worth the reading. The same cannot be said for Bester's later books, particularly the uninspired "Golem-100" (*).
Dani Zweig email@example.com