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Alfred Bester: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000, with later edits

Born in New York City and educated at the University of Pennsylvania in both the humanities and in psychology, a scientific discipline he would use to good effect in all his SF. He could perhaps thank Robert A. Heinlein for the publication of his first short story, "The Broken Axiom," winner of the 1939 amateur short-story contest sponsored by the genre magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. This was the same contest that initiated Heinlein's first story submitted to Astounding Science Fiction. Other notable stories from this period include "Adam and No Eve" (1941) and "Hell is Forever" (1942).

"Alfred Bester was, and remains long after his passing, the preeminent Class Act of imaginative literature. Bester was the mountain, all the rest of us merely climbers toward that peak." - [Harlan Ellison, from his introduction to The Deceivers]

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Never a prolific SF writer, AB left the genre magazines in 1942 in favor of the comics. He worked on such popular titles as Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, and The Green Lantern (he originated the Greet Lantern Oath), before moving on to radio and television scripting. He wrote for the radio serials Charlie Chan and The Shadow as well as the TV series Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, which was loosely based in part on Heinlein's second juvenile novel, Space Cadet.

AB returned to SF literature in the early '50s, publishing more than a dozen short stories and two novels considered to be some of the most innovative and truly original works in the history of the genre. "Disappearing Act" (1953), "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954), and "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" (1958) are the best short works from this stage of his career. The latter is one of the best time-paradox tales ever written. The Demolished Man from 1952 was the first to win the Hugo award for best novel, voted on by fans at the annual World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia in 1953. It tells the story of a successful businessman, Ben Reich, who almost gets away with murder, a crime virtually unheard of in the future society depicted. Policemen trained in ESP generally are able to detect thoughts of crimes long before they are committed. Reich is eventually apprehended by Esper detective Lincoln Powell, and undergoes "demolition," a curative brain-washing technique. [NOTE: I have recently re-read this after many years, and have uploaded a review of it.]

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Bester's second novel is known under two different titles. It was originally serialized in Galaxy and later in book form in the US as The Stars My Destination, but is known in the UK under the title Tiger! Tiger!. A tour de force of revenge, it relates the obsessions of Gulliver Foyle, survivor of a crippled spaceship damaged in a war between the Inner Planets (Earth, Venus, Mars) and the Outer Satellites. He vows to kill the crew of another ship which passes him by even though he is sure they have witnessed his emergency flares. [EDIT: Also recently re-read and reviewed.

In the late '50s AB again left the genre, this time to become a feature writer - and later literary editor - of Holiday magazine. He retained this position until the periodical ceased publication in the early '70s, at which time he returned to SF. Little of his later work would be as highly regarded as his earlier efforts, with the exception of the 1975 novel The Computer Connection (nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula), and the 1974 short story "The Four-Hour Fugue." He expanded on this story in his 1980 novel Golem-100. His final SF novel was The Deceivers from 1981. The best collection of his shorter works, Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester - published in 1976 - is currently out of print. Two other collections of varying quality are available however; Virtual Unrealities and Redemolished.

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"In many respects his work was a forerunner of Cyberpunk. He is one of the very few genre-SF writers to have bridged the chasm between the old and the New Wave, by becoming a legendary figure for both - perhaps because in his SF imagery he conjured up, with bravura, both outer and inner space." - [Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]

Related Links:
My review of The Demolished Man
My review of The Stars My Destination
David Langford's thoughts on Bester at Ansible
A few reviews at ExLibris
Bester Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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December 18, 1913
New York City

September 30, 1987

No Dedicated Website
(Check Related Links)

1 Hugo
SFWA Grand Master (1988)
SF Hall of Fame (2001)