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Alfred Bester

Born December 18, 1913(1913-12-18)
New York City
Died September 30, 1987 (aged 73)
Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Occupation Novelist, short story author, comic book writer, radio scripter
Genres Science fiction

Alfred "Alfie" Bester (December 18, 1913 – September 30, 1987) was an American science fiction author, TV and radio scriptwriter, magazine editor and scripter for comic strips and comic books. Though successful in all these fields, he is probably best remembered today for his work as a science fiction author, and as the winner of the first Hugo Award in 1953 for his novel The Demolished Man.

Contents

Biography

Alfred Bester was born in Manhattan, New York City, on December 18, 1913. His father James owned a shoe store, and was a first-generation American whose parents were both Austrian. Alfred's mother, Belle, was born in Russia and spoke Yiddish as her first language before coming to America as a youth. Alfred was James and Belle's second and final child, and only son. (Their first child, Rita, was born in 1908.) Though his father was of Jewish background, and his mother became a Christian Scientist, Alfred Bester himself wasn't raised within any religious traditions.

Bester attended the University of Pennsylvania where he was a member of the Philomathean Society. He went on to Columbia Law School, but tired of it and dropped out. Bester and Rolly Goulko married in 1936. Rolly Bester had a successful career as a Broadway, radio and television actress before changing careers to become an advertising executive during the 1960s. The Besters remained married for 48 years until her death on January 12, 1984. Bester was very nearly a lifelong New Yorker, although he lived in Europe for a little over a year in the mid-1950s and moved to Pennsylvania with Rolly in the early 1980s. Once settled there, they lived on Geigel Hill Road in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.

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Writing career

Early career in SF short stories, comic books and radio: 1939-50

Ed Emshwiller cover illustrating Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination

After his university career, 25-year-old Alfred Bester was working in public relations when he turned to writing science fiction. Bester's first published short story, "The Broken Axiom," was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories (April 1939) after winning an amateur story competition. Reputedly, this competition was arranged by editors who knew Bester and were favorably inclined toward his early work as a way of giving him a break into the field. This contest, incidentally, was also the same amateur story contest that Robert A. Heinlein famously opted not to enter — the prize was only $50, and Heinlein realized that he could do better by selling his 7,000-word unpublished story to Astounding Science Fiction for a penny a word, or $70. Bester and Heinlein later became friends and joked about the incident.

For the next few years, Bester continued to publish short fiction, most notably in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. In 1942, two of his science fiction editors got work at DC Comics, and invited Bester to contribute to various DC titles. Consequently, Bester left the field of short story writing and began working for DC Comics as a writer on Superman, Green Lantern and other titles. It is popularly believed that Bester wrote the version of the Green Lantern Oath that begins "In brightest day, In blackest night".

Bester was also the writer for Lee Falk's comic strips The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician while their creator served in World War II. It is widely speculated how much influence Bester had on these comics. One theory claims that Bester was responsible for giving the Phantom his surname, "Walker".

After four years in the comics industry, in 1946 Bester turned his attention to radio scripts, after wife Rolly (a busy radio actress) told him that the show Nick Carter, Master Detective was looking for story submissions. Over the next few years, Bester wrote for Nick Carter, as well as The Shadow, Charlie Chan, Nero Wolfe and other shows. He later wrote for The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

With the advent of American network television in 1948, Bester also began writing for television, although most of these projects were lesser-known.

In early 1950, after eight years away from the field, Bester resumed writing science fiction short stories. However, after an initial return to Astounding with the story "The Devil's Invention" (aka "Oddy and Id"), he stopped writing for the magazine in mid-1950 when editor John Campbell became preoccupied with L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, the forerunner to Scientology. Bester then turned to Galaxy Science Fiction, where he found in H. L. Gold another exceptional editor as well as a good friend.

The classic period: 1951-57

In his first period of writing science fiction (1939-1942), Bester had been establishing a reputation as a short story writer in science fiction circles with stories such as "Adam and No Eve". However, Bester gained his greatest renown for the work he wrote and published in the 1950s, including The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger!).

The Demolished Man (1953)

The Demolished Man, recipient of the first Hugo Award for best Science Fiction novel, is a police procedural that takes place in a future world in which telepathy is relatively common. Bester creates a harshly capitalistic, hierarchical and competitive social world that exists without deceit: a society where the right person with some skill (or money) and curiosity can access your memories, secrets, fears and past misdeeds more swiftly and with greater alacrity than even you.

Originally published in three parts in Galaxy, beginning in January 1952, The Demolished Man appeared in book form in 1953. It was dedicated to Gold, who made a number of suggestions during its writing. Originally, Bester wanted the title to be Demolition!, but Gold talked him out of it.

Who He? aka The Rat Race (1953)
Besterratrace.jpg

Bester's 1953 novel Who He? concerned a TV game show host who wakes up after an alcoholic blackout and discovers that someone is out to destroy his life. A contemporary novel with no science-fiction elements, it did not receive wide attention. It did, however, earn Bester a fair amount of money from the sale of the paperback reprint rights (the book appeared in paperback as The Rat Race). As well, Bester received a substantial sum of money from a movie studio for the film option to the book. Purportedly, Jackie Gleason was interested in starring as the game show host; however no movie was ever made of Who He? Still, the payout from the film option was large enough that Alfred and Rolly Bester decided they could afford to travel to Europe for the next few years. They lived mainly in Italy and England during this period.

The Stars My Destination aka Tiger, Tiger (1955)

Bester's next novel was outlined while he was living in England and mostly written when he was living in Rome. The Stars My Destination had its origins in a newspaper clipping that Bester found about Poon Lim, a shipwrecked World War II sailor on a raft, who had drifted unrescued in the Pacific for a world record 133 days because passing ships thought he was a lure to bring them within torpedo range of a hidden submarine. From that germ grew the story of Gully Foyle, seeking revenge for his abandonment and causing havoc all about him: a science fiction re-telling of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo with teleportation added to the mix. It has been described as an ancestor of cyberpunk.

As had occurred with The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination was originally serialized in Galaxy. It ran in four parts (October 1956 through January 1957) and the book was published later in 1957. Though repeatedly voted in polls the "Best Science Fiction Novel of All Time', The Stars My Destination would prove to be Bester's last novel for 19 years. A radio adaptation was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1991.

Magazine fiction and non-fiction: 1959-62

While on his European trip, Bester began selling non-fiction pieces about various European locations to the mainstream travel/lifestyle magazine Holiday. The Holiday editors, impressed with his work, invited Bester back to their headquarters in New York and began commissioning him to write travel articles about various far-flung locales, as well as doing interviews with such stars as Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn. As a result of steady work with Holiday, Bester's science fiction output dropped precipitously in the years following the publication of The Stars My Destination.

Bester published three short stories each in 1958 and 1959, including 1958's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" and 1959's "The Pi Man", both of which were nominated for Hugo Awards. However, for a four-year period from October 1959 to October 1963, he published no fiction at all. Instead, he concentrated on his work at Holiday (where he was made a senior editor), reviewed books for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (from 1960 to 1962) and returned to television scripting.

Television: 1959-62

Kevin McCarthy (standing), Rip Torn and Suzanne Pleshette in Alfred Bester's Murder and the Android

In 1959, Bester adapted his 1954 story "Fondly Fahrenheit" to television as Murder and the Android. Telecast in color on October 18, 1959, the hour-long drama took place in the year 2359 amid futuristic sets designed by Ted Cooper. This NBC Sunday Showcase production, produced by Robert Alan Aurthur with a cast of Kevin McCarthy, Rip Torn, Suzanne Pleshette and Telly Savalas, was reviewed by syndicated radio-television critic John Crosby:

Despite the fact that the androids refer contempuously to human beings as people who suffer from glandular disorders called emotions, Torn wants very much to suffer from these disorders himself. Eventually, he does. I have no intention of unraveling the whole plot which was not so much complicated as psychologically dense. If I understand him correctly, Mr. Bester is trying to say that having androids to free us of mundane preoccupations like work is by no means good for us. His humans are pretty close to being bums.

Murder and the Android was nominated for a 1960 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was given a repeat on September 5, 1960, the Labor Day weekend in which that Hugo Award was presented (to The Twilight Zone) at the World Science Fiction Convention in Pittsburgh. Bester returned to Sunday Showcase March 5, 1960 with an original teleplay, Turn the Key Deftly. Telecast in color, that mystery, set in a traveling circus, starred Julie Harris, Maximilian Schell and Francis Lederer.

For Alcoa Premiere, hosted by Fred Astaire, he wrote Mr. Lucifer, which aired November 1, 1962 with Astaire in the title role opposite Elizabeth Montgomery.

Senior editor of Holiday: 1963-71

After a four year layoff, Bester published a handful of science-fiction short stories in 1963 and 1964. However, writing science-fiction was at this stage in Bester's life clearly more of a sideline than the focus of his career. As a result, from 1964 until the original version of Holiday folded in 1971, Bester published only one science-fiction short story, a 700-word science fiction spoof in the upscale mainstream magazine Status.

Julie Harris and Maximilian Schell in Alfred Bester's Turn the Key Deftly on NBC Sunday Showcase March 5, 1960.

Still, as senior editor of Holiday, Bester was able to introduce occasional science-fiction elements into the non-fiction magazine. On one occasion, he commissioned and published an article by Arthur C. Clarke describing a tourist flight to the Moon. Bester himself, though, never published any science fiction in Holiday, which was a mainstream travel/lifestyle magazine marketed to upscale readers during an era when science fiction was largely dismissed as juvenilia.

Later career: 1972-87

Holiday magazine ceased publication in 1971, although it was later revived and reformatted by other hands, without Bester's involvement. For the first time in nearly 15 years, Bester did not have full-time employment.

After a long layoff from writing science fiction, Bester returned to the field in 1972. His 1974 short story "The Four-Hour Fugue" was nominated for a Hugo Award, and Bester received Hugo and Nebula Award nominations for his 1975 novel The Computer Connection (titled The Indian Giver as a magazine serial and later reprinted as Extro). Despite these nominations, Bester's work of this era generally failed to receive the critical or commercial success of his earlier period.

Bester's eyesight began failing in the mid-1970s, making writing increasingly difficult, and another layoff from published writing took place between early 1975 and early 1979. It is alleged during this period that the producer of the 1978 Superman movie sent his son off to search for a writer. The name Alfred Bester came up, but Bester wanted to focus the story on Clark Kent as the real hero, while Superman was only "his gun." The producers instead hired Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, to write the film.

Bester published two short stories in 1979 and rang in the 1980s with the publication of two new novels: Golem100 (1980), and The Deceivers (1981). In addition to his failing eyesight, other health issues began to affect him, and Bester produced no new published work after 1981. His wife Rolly died in 1984.

In 1985, it was announced that Bester would be Guest of Honor at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Brighton. As the event neared, however, Bester fell and broke his hip. With his worsening overall health, he was plainly too ill to attend. Doris Lessing stepped in as a last-minute replacement.

Bester died less than a month after the convention from complications related to his broken hip. However, shortly before his death he learned that the Science Fiction Writers of America would honor him with their Grand Master Nebula award at their 1988 convention.

Elizabeth Montgomery and Fred Astaire in Alfred Bester's Mr. Lucifer on Alcoa Premiere (November 1, 1962).

Two works by Bester were issued posthumously. The first, Tender Loving Rage (1991), was a mainstream (i.e., non-science fiction) novel that was probably written in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The second, Psychoshop (1998), was based on an incomplete 92-page story fragment. It was completed by Roger Zelazny and remained unpublished until three years after Zelazny's death. When issued, it was credited as a collaborative work.

Alfred Bester had no children, and according to legend, left everything to his bartender, Joe Suder. That much is, in fact, true. However, the claim that Suder didn't know or remember Bester is legend rather than fact; Bester stopped by Suder's bar every morning on his way to get his mail, and the two men were friends.

Legacy and tributes

  • Bester has been memorialized by other science fiction writers in their own works. Notably, the character of Psi-Cop Alfred Bester is named after him (and the treatment of telepathy in Babylon 5 is similar to that in Bester's works). As well, the time-travelling pest named Al Phee in Spider Robinson's Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series is based on Bester.
  • F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre has written a series of stories — beginning with "Time Lines" (published in Analog, 1999) — about a time-traveling criminal named Smedley Faversham, who constantly runs afoul of a scientific principle called "Bester's Law". This term is MacIntyre's invention, but it is explicitly in homage to Alfred Bester's work: specifically, to Bester's 1958 story "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed". Bester's Law, as articulated by MacIntyre, states that a time-traveler who attempts to rewrite the past can only alter his or her own time-line, not anyone else's. Bester's Law is rigidly enforced by a legion of "time cops", whom MacIntyre's protagonist sneeringly refers to as "the Bester Boosters" and "the Bester-Busters".
  • A radio adaptation of The Stars My Destination was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1991, although this may have been a repeat broadcast. [1] lists the play as a 60-minute episode, but the original running time was almost certainly 90 minutes. The story was also adapted in the 1970s as a graphic novel by writer/artist Howard Chaykin.
  • Firefly - Many of the names of off-camera and minor characters are drawn from the ranks of science fiction writers. Notably, Bester (Alfred Bester) as the original mechanic of Serenity.
  • Lisey's Story - Stephen King's character Scott Landon makes reference to Bester when making a dedication to a new library, saying: "This one's for Alfie Bester, and if you haven't read him, you ought to be ashamed!"
  • Comics writer James Robinson entitled a story arc in his Starman series for DC Comics "Stars My Destination".
  • Stephen King's short story "The Jaunt," borrows that word for teleportation from Bester's The Stars My Destination, as does the ITV Television series (and subsequent remake) The Tomorrow People.
  • From The Simpsons Episode "Lisa's Substitute," Springfield Elementary student, Martin, campaigning for class president:
Martin: As your president, I would demand a science-fiction library, featuring an ABC of the overlords of the genre: Asimov, Bester, Clarke!
Kid: What about Ray Bradbury?
Martin: (dismissively) I'm aware of his work.

Notable short stories

  • "Adam and No Eve" concerns the last man on Earth (and there are no women, this time). Published in the 1940s, this tale concerns an inventor who devises a method of rocket propulsion involving a chemical catalyst that induces atomic fission in elemental iron, releasing enormous amounts of energy. However, a colleague warns him that if even the tiniest drop of the catalyst were allowed to touch the ground (which contains iron), it would cause a chain reaction that would spread and incinerate the entire surface of the earth. The inventor takes off in his experimental rocketship anyway, and immediately passes out from the high g-forces. When the inventor awakes in orbit and gazes down to earth, he discovers that his colleague had been right: the planet below is destroyed, its entire surface scorched and cauterized by the runaway reaction. Upon crash landing, he sees that he is the last man alive, "Adam and No Eve". Dying from injuries sustained in the crash landing, he realizes that there is only one way he can atone for his actions: by dying, he will enable the bacteria inside his digestive tract to flourish independently, gradually re-initiating the long evolutionary process which may ultimately re-introduce human life or something similar.
  • "5,271,009" in which a character is placed within various science-fictional wish-fulfillment scenarios, and discovers the flaw in each (the Last Man on Earth, and no dentists...)
  • "Fondly Fahrenheit" in which a malfunctioning android becomes murderously violent in hot weather. Not only is the android psychotic, but its owner is also unstable and projects his emotions onto the android. This is emphasized in the story by a remarkable shifting of viewpoint between third-person, and first-person singular and plural from the POV of both the android and the owner. It was adapted to television as Murder and the Android.
  • "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" is an ingenious twist on the standard time-paradox story. A man discovers how to travel through time, and arrogantly decides to alter the present by journeying into the past and murdering prominent historical figures. He returns to the present, only to discover that nothing has changed... except that it has, but in an unexpected way. One of Bester's most popular and influential pieces, this story's title is occasionally (and mistakenly) cited as "The Man Who Murdered Mohammed". The plural ("The Men Who...") is correct, due to a surprise revelation in the story.
  • "The Rollercoaster" in which there's an unusual, ahead-of-his-time treatment of violence and time travel.
  • "Time is the Traitor" is a story of powerful men and obsessive love. Warner Bros. bought its film rights for producers Matthew McConaughey and Denise Di Novi.

Works

Novels

The Demolished Man.jpg

Collections

  • Starburst (1958) contains the short stories
    • "Disappearing Act" originally published in 1953
    • "Adam and No Eve" originally published in 1941
    • "Star Light, Star Bright" originally published in 1953
    • "The Roller Coaster" originally published in 1953
    • "Oddy and Id" originally published in 1950 as "The Devil's Invention"
    • "The Starcomber" originally published in 1954 as "5,271,009"
    • "Travel Diary"
    • "Fondly Fahrenheit" originally published in 1954
    • "Hobson's Choice" originally published in 1952
    • "The Die-Hard"
    • "Of Time and Third Avenue" originally published in 1951
  • The Dark Side of the Earth (1964) contains the short stories
    • "Time is the Traitor" (originally published in 1953)
    • "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" (originally published in 1958) (Hugo Award Nominee)
    • "Out of This World"
    • "The Pi Man" (originally published in 1959) (Hugo Award Nominee)
    • "The Flowered Thundermug" (originally published in 1964)
    • "Will You Wait?" (originally published in 1959)
    • "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To" (originally published in 1963)
  • An Alfred Bester Omnibus (1968)
  • Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
  • The Light Fantastic Volume 1: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
  • Star Light, Star Bright: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, Volume 2 (1976)
  • The Light Fantastic Volume 2: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
  • Virtual Unrealities (1997) - contains the stories:
    • "Disappearing Act" (originally published in 1953)
    • "Oddy and Id"
    • "Star Light, Star Bright" " (originally published in 1953, used as the title for two other compilations of Bester's short stories)
    • "5,271,009" (originally published in 1954)
    • "Fondly Fahrenheit" (originally published in 1954)
    • "Hobson's Choice" (originally published in 1952)
    • "Of Time and Third Avenue" (originally published in 1952)
    • "Time is the Traitor" (originally published in 1953)
    • "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" (originally published in 1958) (Hugo Award nominee)
    • "The Pi Man" (originally published in 1959) (Hugo Award Nominee)
    • "They Don't Make Life Like They Used To" (originally published in 1963)
    • "Will You Wait?" (originally published in 1959)
    • "The Flowered Thundermug" (originally published in 1964)
    • "Adam and No Eve" (originally published in 1941)
    • "And 3 1/2 to Go" (fragment - previously unpublished)
    • "Galatea Galante" (originally published in 1979)
    • "The Devil Without Glasses" (previously unpublished)
  • Redemolished (2000) - Contains the short stories:

Non-fiction

  • The Life and Death of a Satellite (1966)

Other short fiction

  • "Ms. Found In a Champagne Bottle," collected in The Light Fantastic (1976)

Awards

Hugo Award:

Hugo nominations:

External links


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