Sunday, January 01, 2012

Detectives beyond the stars

Happy New Year to all. For the year’s first post, I’ll cross borders I’ve rarely crossed here at DBB: those to science fiction.

For all the usual sci-fi hater's reasons, I’ve never been attracted to the genre: It’s silly. It’s far-fetched. It takes itself way too seriously. But I’d read good things about Alfred Bester, who wrote some classics in the field in the 1950s. I figured that if William Gibson thought he was cool, the man might be worth a look.

Neil Gaiman’s introduction to Bester’s 1956 novel The Stars My Destination (also published as Tiger! Tiger!) says Bester “was one of the only—perhaps the only—SF writers to be revered by the old timers (`First SF’), by the radical `New Wave’ of the 1960s and early 1970s, and, in the 1980s, by the `cyberpunks.’”

That’s good. So is this:

“When he died in 1987, three years into the flowering of cyberpunk, it was apparent that the 1980s genre owed an enormous debt to Bester—and to this book in particular. ... But what makes The Stars My Destination more interesting—and ten years on, less dated—than most cyberpunk, is watching Gully Foyle become a moral creature.”
So, how does the novel look so far? It's got a hell of a lot more humor than I expected, and that counts for much:
 "A researcher named Jaunte set fire to his bench and himself (accidentally) and let out a yell for help with particular reference to a fire extinguisher. Who so surprised as Jaunte and his colleagues when he found himself standing alongside said extinguisher, seventy feet removed from his lab bench."
He exercises that humor in paragraphs full of absurd situations, comically open-ended tales, and words that tumble over themselves in the verbal equivalent of a long, cackling tenor saxophone solo:

"Despite all efforts, no man had ever jaunted across the voids of space, although many experts and fools had tried. Helmut Grant, for one, who spent a month memorizing the co-ordinates of a jaunte stage on the moon and visualized every mile of the two hundred and forty thousand-mile trajectory from Times Square to Kepler City. Grant jaunted and disappeared. They never found him. They never found Enzio Dandridge, a Los Angeles revivalist looking for Heaven; Jacob Maria Freundlich, a paraphysicist who should have known better than to jaunte into deep space searching for metadimensions; Shipwreck Cogan, a professional seeker after notoriety; and hundreds of others, lunatic-fringers, neurotics, escapists, and suicides."
I don't know if I'll finish the novel; the above is just from the prologue, after all. But I love that paragraph.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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21 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Happy New Year, Peter!

Bester has come across my radar before, and this does look like good writing.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

Ted Sturgeon, an SF writer and one of the great ones, once was told by an SF hater than 90% of SF was crap. Sturgeon replied that 90% of everything is crap.

Even though I agree with him, I still read considerable SF and mysteries, hoping to find the 10% that's worth reading.

Bester belongs in that 10%, and _The Stars My Destination_ is one of the best SF novels ever written.

Happy New Year!

January 01, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

If I remember this book (and its been 30 years) there's a really hardboiled edge to it isnt there? Aside from the teleporting and all that its basically a crazy ass revenge thriller.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And a Happy New Year to you, as well, Seana. A lot of science fiction writers, even more than mystery writers, I think, don't seem to survive the test of time. Bester defies that tendency. Even if I don't finish this novel, I've gaines some respect for his writing.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I liked Neil Gaiman's statements that Bester had earned respect from old-school, radical 1960s, and 1980s cyber-punk authors.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Fred, and Happy New Year to you, too.

John Connolly once used the same 90-10 ratio for crime writing, and he said the same thing: 90 percent of crime fiction is shite, he said, but so is 90 percent of everything. The only reason I'd suspect that science fiction might date especially quickly is that the real science outstrips it. But that's just a suspicion. I also don't even know how much of today's speculative fiction deals with science.

Good science fiction might well demand freshness of apprach even more than good crime writing does. One can still tell a good, solid, P.I. or police story, but I'm not so sure one can do the same with, I don't know, teleportation or alien invasions.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, the hard-boiled edge is probably why I like the book's opening. That was the prologue; I've only just started reading the main part of the story, so the quest for revenge hasn't started yet, but I have seen the novel descibed as a tale of revenge.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I was thinking the same thing about mystery vs. sci fi genre, though haven't really read enough sci fi to know if I would be talking through my hat or not. It probably is the science, but it may have something to do with the way our imagination about the future and what a truly exotic setting would be like as well. Whereas mysteries, staying in the "real world", can have a period feel, but stay true to that period, and so continue to feel real.

Maybe.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds like we're in similar places with respect to science fiction. I wonder, too, if exhaustion at the prospect of keeping up with or ahead of science and thinking about science gave rise to the term "speculative fiction."

January 01, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I've liked most of the science fiction I've read, but I don't get around to it as often as mystery and crime stuff.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was a big reader about science when I was a child. I loved astronomy, and I liked dinosaurs before dinosaurs were cool. But never science fiction, for some readon.

Obviously I find Bester's humor attractive. I wonder how usual humor is for the genre.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I was a very indiscriminate reader as a kid so it was whatever happened into my hands. I remember liking Heinlein's Have Spaceship, Will Travel a lot.

It was a very romantic era as far as ideas of space travel went, so of course there was a lot about the possibilities everywhere you looked. I remember sending in to some newspaper thing and buying a square foot of land on the moon, for example.

I wonder if I still have the deed...

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder what your piece of the moon is worth now. And I wonder that there is to be romantic about in the science-fiction world these days.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Well, people seem to be pretty excited about the idea of going to Mars.

I told my nephew if he goes on one of those colonization missions for which there is no return trip, he has to wait until I'm dead.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I wonder if the current revival of interest in manned space travel might trigger a new, wiser, sadder, less naive, more knowing kind of science fiction.

Whoever leaves on those missions form which there will be no returnw ill get much grief from concerned relatives, I'm sure. It will be like transportation to Australia all over again.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Recently decided to read all the Hugo winners in order. Bester's Demolished Man comes first, and I got a kick out of how much of a noir-ish mystery it was, albeit with a futuristic setting. I'll be reading more of him, for certain.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure how much more of him there is to read, at least in novel form. I think he wrote just two or three in the fifties and two or three more in the seventies, in between and sandwiched around lots of short stories and work in comics and maybe television as well.

The noir/mystery/hard-boiled elements in a futuristic setting intrigue me, of course, with just a bit of dread that the such a thing could turn out be a lot of interstellar trench coats and moody saxophone music. But I have high hopes that Bester will be better than that.

January 01, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

Below is a link to the ISFDB entry regarding Alfred Bester.

http://tinyurl.com/7yxtxa9


Following is a list of his novels:

The Deceivers

Golem 100

Psycho Shop (completed by Roger Zelazny)

The Computer Connection

The Demolished Man

The Stars My Destination

Rage (a psychological thriller, non-SF

January 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the link and the list, Fred. I'm curious about Bester's conversation with Woody Allen.

January 02, 2012  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Peter, this one really is worth sticking with. It's essentially a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo with space travel and radioactive hitmen and time splits. But you might enjoy Bester's The Demolished Man more. It's more crime-centric and features a powerful industrialist trying to successfully commit murder in a society where telepaths pre-screen all crimes. Good stuff, if a little too Freudian in its ending.

January 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had to put this one aside for a couple of days (because of a technological glitch, ironically or not so ironically enough). But I will pick it up again once I've finished the book I picked up because of the glitch.

The Demolished Man is too Freudian in its ending? I guess Freudianism influenced many genres in the benighted 1950s.

January 03, 2012  

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