In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style. When it turns out I’ve already experienced a writer, I call upon friends to lend a hand. This month writer and podcaster PJ Montgomery shares his first experiences with the legendary Alfred Bester.
Alfred Bester is a name I’m more than familiar with. As a comic fan, I know Bester as the man who created the character of Solomon Grundy, and the most well known version of the Green Lantern oath (you know, “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight,” etc…). I know he was married to the woman that originated the role of Lois Lane in the original Superman radio serials, Rolly Bester. I know that in TV, Walter Koenig’s character on Babylon 5 was named after Bester, and that Babylon 5’s treatment of telepaths took a lot of inspiration from Bester’s most celebrated work, The Demolished Man. Bester’s other famous novel, The Stars My Destination, itself takes inspiration from the classic Alexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
I’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo, but I’ve never read The Stars My Destination. In fact, while I’m very aware of his work and how he’s influenced a lot of the science fiction I enjoy, I’ve never actually read anything by Alfred Bester. Until now…
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1954
Read in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
I didn’t really know what to expect from this story. The title initially put me in mind of another science-fiction classic, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think that slightly lowered my defenses, so when the story opened with the discovery of a young girl’s body, the victim of a brutal murder, I was taken aback. “Okay, this is a murder mystery.” I told myself, and settled in, only for the very next scene to tell me who did it.
Fondly Fahrenheit, it turns out, is a lot more complex than that. It’s a musing on madness, projection, free will, slavery and artificial intelligence. Even if, by the end, it’s a musing with a fairly hefty body count. James Vandaleur and his multiple aptitude android skip from planet to planet, running from the murders the android is supposedly committing. I say supposedly, because while Bester flat out tells you that the android is responsible early on, later events and the very way the story is told somewhat muddy the waters. The story is largely narrated by a third person, omniscient narrator, but will often slip into first person narration from either Vandaleur, or the android. Sometimes this happens within the space of a single paragraph, so you get all three points of view in quick succession. It leads you to question where the divide is between the characters, and wonder how reliable the narration truly is. It deals with big themes in a relatively slender page count, and made me feel incredibly tense as I read it. I loved it. As my first encounter with Bester, it definitely led me wanting to read more. Good thing I’ve got two more stories to cover.
Star Light, Star Bright
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1953
Read in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
In an introduction to the edition of the story I read, Bester describes it as a search story, told with the pace of a chase story. You can really feel that as you read it, with Bester using all the tools at his disposal to make the story rattle along at breakneck pace, even during the quieter moments. Very occasionally, this is to the story’s detriment, as one or two smaller beats become a little confusing, but overall, it’s an effective way of telling a story.
The story itself concerns a hunt for genius children, each one gifted with a different type of genius, or superpower. Naturally, the protagonist, who goes by several aliases during the course of the story, is in it for the money, and his young quarry don’t even know they’re being hunted. In a touch I particularly enjoyed, Bester starts referring to his main character as “the doomed man” fairly early on in the story. It adds to the tension and pace, as you know something is going to happen to him, but not the when or how of it. When his ultimate fate does come, it’s in two paragraphs that Bester’s introduction tells you he hates. He was made to put these in by his editor at the time, who wanted a more clear-cut ending. Bester would have preferred to leave things a bit more ambiguous, and asks the reader to read these two paragraphs with their eyes closed.
I understand Bester’s point of view. I think a more ambiguous ending would have fitted the story better. But, that said, I also found the extra paragraphs incredibly evocative and atmospheric, and feel that Bester was slightly overreacting to their quality in his introduction. But then, aren’t all writers their own worst critics?
They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1963
Read in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)
What if the last man and woman on Earth were assholes? That’s the basic premise of this story, and Bester mines it for all it’s worth. I hated both the characters, but I’ll give them a little leeway, as who knows how any of us would react to being the only people left on the planet? I also admit that the story grabbed me, and I wanted to find out what happened to them, even as I was hoping they’d get some kind of comeuppance. Luckily, the story’s just the right length so that they don’t outstay their welcome. There’s some dark comedy in there, and while the ending may initially seem to come out of nowhere, Bester is careful to seed it through the story, so it’s not a total surprise when it does arrive. That said, the ending is somewhat abrupt, and there’s definitely some sixties sexism sprinkled throughout the story.
Bester’s writing is superb, with his descriptions of an apocalyptic New York creating some amazing imagery in my mind, and the characters felt real to me. It’s also the longest of the three stories I read, but the fast pacing meant it really didn’t feel like it. But I think, for me, it was the weakest of the trifecta of stories I read. I was enjoying it while I read it, but once it was done, I found myself struggling to really care about it. I think a big part of that is just the characters, and my dislike for them, but even then, this story had a lot to recommend. I probably won’t revisit it (I could re-read Fondly Fahrenheit over and over), but it’s definitely worth reading once.
This little experiment has been a fun experience. Overall, I enjoyed my time with Bester, and I loved the first two stories. Even the one I didn’t love so much has elements I liked. I’ve been very much left with a desire to read more Bester. Anyone got a copy of The Stars My Destination I can borrow?
I had no idea that Bester wrote comic books and created the Green Lantern oath! Now I may have to go track down some of Bester’s “Green Lantern” books because I loved both of the novels PJ mentioned. Don’t forget to check out PJ Montgomery’s Twitter and Instagram to find his various podcast and writing projects, which are all excellent.
I’m one of those science fiction fans that believes that 1990s sci-fi television (and to some extent literature) was a mostly barren wasteland. That didn’t stop me from watching a ton of it as a teenage fan – after all, what did I know? We all have shows we watch knowing that they’re bad, but we still enjoy them nonetheless. For me, Seven Days (or 7 Days) was one of those shows.
And let me tell you, has it not aged well. Like, not in a single way.
Seven Days premiered on 7 October 1998 on UPN. (Are you – like me – old and lame enough to remember UPN?) The premise was wonderfully simple: a secret US government project, based on alien technology recovered from the Roswell crash, is tasked with allowing a single person to travel back in time up to seven days. Why seven days? It has something to do with the size of the reactor we can use that runs of alien fuel, but really it’s because seven days is a week and that’s snappy. So called “Project Backstep” operates out of Area 51 (yup) with the sole purpose of preventing terrorist attacks and safeguarding American interests. Check that air date again, late 1998, but more on that later.
In the pilot episode, Chechnyan Marxists launch an attack on a US-Russian summit, killing the Russian president, as well as the US president and vice president when a plane crashes into the White House where the meeting is taking place. A subsequent attack kills the US Speaker of the House, who is third in line to the presidency. The decision is made to attempt a “backstep,” only problem being that it has never worked before and there are no pilots, a.k.a. “chrononauts.” With only seven days to find, train, and launch the mission, a search for expendable people turns up our hero: Frank B. Parker. This guy has it all. He is extremely physically fit (and jacked) with a high pain threshold, which is necessary to pilot the time machine, as well as a photographic memory which is ideal for retaining all the intelligence acquired from the future. He is also a decorated Navy SEAL and ex-CIA operative. He also happens to be crazy, having been committed to a mental institution after being tortured in a “hot box” in Somalia. But our boy is a true American hero because he never cracked under torture. He also, conveniently, happens to have a best friend that is the military liaison to Project Backstep, which is the only reason he doesn’t think he’s hallucinating the whole thing when he’s told the government wants him to travel back in time to stop the terrorist attack. Jump to the end of the two hour pilot episode, and Frank B. Parker saves the nation’s leadership, and Project Backstep is somehow ready to do this every week for three years of non-network television.
This show is absolute patriotic porn. I didn’t totally realize it at the time, but holy hell is it clear now. The frequent foil of the show’s American heroes are the Russians/former Soviets; it is no coincidence that the terrorists of the pilot are Chechnyan. On the scientific team at Project Backstep is Dr. Olga Vukavitch, the only woman on the cast and thus the love interest of Frank B. Parker. As you can imagine, Olga is subject to frequent unwanted sexual advances by her coworker which are meant to be endearing, and she smiles lovingly through all the playful workplace harassment. (I mean no disrespect to actor Justina Vail Evans, who did an excellent job with the material given her to play Olga.) Dr. Vukavitch, if you couldn’t tell from the name, is a Russian defector that worked on the Soviet time travel program, and I’m pretty sure “Communists with time machines” was on many a Republican’s nightmare list in the late 20th century. Though terrorism features heavily in the show, the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is non-existent despite it being a household term just a few years later. Instead, the focus is on the classic American political myopia of nation-state terrorists. Of course, the concept of Russians with time machines comes up multiple times, in episodes that are honestly among the best of the series.
But it’s not just the use of former Soviets as the show’s primary foil that makes Seven Days a pre-9/11 Conservative wet dream, it’s the overall premise and tone of the series. The US Government can do no wrong, and is not only always on the side of righteousness, but is also on the side of God. American intelligence gathering is so tight, and the US Government’s power so great, that literal time travel is within their grasp. No tragedy is allowed to impact the American people, or interrupt their lives. Here is a small list of the incidents that Project Backstep prevents in various episodes: a terrorist attack on Washington D.C.; a second Korean War; the bombing of an NSA office (yup, that’s enough to necessitate time travel); a Jonestown-like massacre that ruins the press for the president’s human rights conference (I’m not kidding); a Russian Navy submarine accident contaminating the Alaskan coast with plutonium (actually, that’s a good reason to time travel); the death of the vice president’s illegitimate daughter which causes the vice president to commit suicide; an explosion at a Las Vegas casino that kills 1,000 people, including some attending a Defense convention (?!); and a global pandemic of airborne ebola (‘90’s deep cut) that was released by – you guessed it – a terrorist attack. That wild list is taken entirely from the show’s first season!
If it was just the tone and premise of “America can’t loose, baby!” it might be forgivable. But the creators leaned even further in and put America on the side of God Himself. Frank B. Parker is an orphan raised by nuns, and although he’s not a great Catholic, he definitely is one. It’s probably fortunate that Muslim terrorism doesn’t feature in the show because of this, and one of the few times Muslims are mentioned at all is in an episode where time travel is authorized to prevent the Catholic Pope’s assassination because he was negotiating a peace treaty between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia – you know, because that’s something that the Pope would do and that a reasonable person would expect he’d succeed at. (Fun fact, Frank ends up Quantum Leaping into the Pope’s body in that episode for no clear reason.) There are many episodes where being “on the side of the angels” is strongly alluded to, but this all comes to a head in the third season episode “Revelation”, in which a Project Backstep chrononaut from seven years in the future (played by Robert Picardo), arrives with a mission to assassinate a Nobel Peace Prize winning religious leader… who happens to be Muslim. The assassination goes forward with US Government approval but everything goes tits up after that. Frank backsteps seven days to prevent the assassination he carried out in the first place and confronts Robert Picardo’s character who turns out to be none other than Satan himself! No really. He even has a neat tattoo that says “666”. By defeating the Devil, Frank B. Parker is cemented as the right hand of God. That episode is either the low point or high point of season three, depending on your perspective.
Due to low ratings and consistently poor critical reception, Seven Days was canceled and aired its final episode on 29 May 2001, just four months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the show’s protagonists would have been charged with preventing. In the days following 11 September 2001 I thought a lot about Seven Days, part of me wishing it were real to prevent the senseless deaths, and part of me in complete awe at our national hubris to conceive of such a show. Watching the pilot today is nothing short of a mind-fuck. The episode unfolds as patriotic disaster porn, and we are meant to feel that although everything shown is awful, we can watch comfortable knowing that in the end Navy SEAL and CIA agent Frank B. Parker will set all right with the world and God. September 11 changed American culture so much that it is sometimes hard to grasp how different fiction was before that day. Seven Days is an extreme window into a time when suspension of disbelief didn’t include the fact that the CIA was working for the good of the world and was protected by God, just that time travel was real.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.