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.
As you can probably guess from my Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta column, I’m a fan of science fiction and horror across the ages. This is not only in written form but in film and television as well. I thought I’d tap that knowledge to bring you some great old school horror films to help pass the time until Halloween. The best thing is that all these films are now in the public domain, meaning you can watch them for free at the links provided, though they are still sold for rent on many sites like Amazon and YouTube because capitalism gotta capitalism.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This is not only my favorite vintage sci-fi/horror film, it’s my favorite movie of all time. The acting and tone are spot on to capture Jack Finney’s 1954 novel of the consuming fear of communism, and the film launched an iconic sci-fi/horror subgenre that persists through the constant remakes (1978’s is a classic) through modern interpretations like The World’s End (2013). Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells the story of a family doctor (Kevin McCarthy) returning from a work conference to his home of Santa Mira, where his patients are beginning to feel that their loved ones “are not their loved ones.” Paranoia and tension ramp up in a slow and satisfying way straight to the climax. (Fun fact, Santa Mira is a fictional town featured in many disparate works of science fiction and horror, likely all paying homage to this film/book.)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
A horror cinema icon, House on Haunted Hill created the trope of the wealth eccentric paying people to spend one night in a haunted house – if they can survive. Staring the incomparable Vincent Price, this is a genuinely fun and scary film up to the very end. Fun fact, this is the first horror film Casandra Peterson ever watched, and it started her lifelong love of horror, ultimately leading her to create her persona Elvira.
For extra fun you can catch it on Elvira’s 40th anniversary special on Shudder.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
This is the original adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novella “I Am Legend”, and with a screenplay written by Matheson himself it is very true to the book. Far truer, in fact, than the two remakes, Omega Man (1971) staring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) staring Will Smith, which I also enjoy to varying degrees. I have a theory that this movie is remade for every generation staring the quintessential blockbuster actor of the time, so of course The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price! (Prove my theory wrong.) The book and film’s hybrid vampire/zombie monsters left a permanent impression on the subgenres, and this film is one that may resonate with folks after the 2020 quarantines.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Speaking of zombies, how could I leave out the most influential zombie film of all time? George Romero functionally created the modern zombie in this film, and that alone would make it worth a watch. Lucky for us, this movie fires on all cylinders of plot, acting, and dialog. This is a timeless classic that I still go back to with friends who have never seen it and are subsequently blown away by everything about it. This has also become an iconic film in Black cinema due to the fact that the only person who knows how to handle himself is a Black man with experience living through Jim Crow. There is a lot to unpack in this movie and it is worthy of a rewatch if you haven’t revisited it in some time.
Sure, sure, everyone knows the story of Frankenstein, but if you’ve never watched James Whale’s 1931 classic then you’re missing a key part of horror cinematic history. This one is packed with emotional weight, especially from the timeless performance of Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff took a role that many at the time would feel was silly and played it with an earnestness and compassion that created a cinema classic that will – somewhat sadly – never lose its relevance; there will always be misunderstood “creatures” that the mob will come after. This was one of the first non-children’s movies I showed my son, and I’ll never forget my then eight year old saying, “The real monster is the people from the town!”
I hope you’ll take the time to visit (or revisit) these icons of horror, and you may even spot some tricks of the cinematic trade that originated in these films.
‘Tis the season for getting spoopy, boys and ghouls, and there’s no better place to find the chills than the streaming service Shudder! I thought I’d drop in with another five recommendations, which along with my previous two installments should bring you lots of viewing pleasure.
This 1972 Blaxploitation horror classic stands out in the genre as being filled in the Blaxploitation era while featuring some rather innovative storytelling. Notably, the film starts with the titular character – an African prince – meeting with Count Dracula to seek his help in suppressing the intercontinental slave trade. Dracula curses the prince and imprisons him, only to be released in 1970s Los Angeles where plot ensues. Though admittedly camp, I was genuinely impressed with many aspects of the film, especially the cinematography. This was just added to Shudder this week, so jump on it! (I should point out that although the Rotten Tomatoes score is poor, Blacula sits at five skulls on Shudder.)
For more background on Blacula’s place in Black horror, check out the Horror Noire documentary on Shudder.
The description for The Endless largely points to the directing duo’s previous movie, Spring (2014). I first heard of Spring via a Twitter recommendation from Guillermo del Toro. It is a touching “American boy goes to Europe and falls in love” romance story with a monster twist right up del Toro’s alley, and I really enjoyed it. Accordingly, the enticement of “new film by the directors of Spring” was enough for me to almost immediately watch The Endless. I was absolutely not disappointed. There are scenes that will stick with me forever, and I really loved the grounded (albeit simple) relationship story of the two brothers. This is a horror mystery that slowly builds in unexpected directions, and fans of Lovecraftian suspense/horror with zero gore with enjoy this one.
Ah, Ginger Snaps, an underappreciated gem. This one came to me by the incomparable Joe Bob Briggs. (For an extended viewing experience watch Ginger Snaps in Season 3 of The Last Drive-in With Joe Bob Briggs.) There is a lot to unpack in this late-90s (technically 2000) “goth girl” werewolf/vampire horror film. Family, sisterhood, puberty, distant teachers, sacrifice… holy crap this is a great movie. I’ve been watching a lot of werewolf movies recently, and this one really elevates the subgenre to a point rarely seen before or since. Highly recommended.
Train to Busan
It is only by unforgivable oversight that in my previous two installments of Shudder Roundups that I haven’t recommended Train to Busan. If you consider yourself a fan of zombie movies but haven’t seen this 2016 South Korean touchstone then you are out of date. South Korean filmmakers are doing really innovative things with zombie movies, and horror in general. (As I write this we’re deep in the Netflix phenomenon that is Squid Game.) The film tells the story of a wealthy South Korean business man taking his daughter on a birthday trip to his ex-wife in the city of Busan. (I concluded that the innocuous title could be Americanized as “Train to Boston”, if that helps you contextualize the film.) While on board a zombie outbreak occurs, and inevitably infiltrates the train. Already you can see there is a primo setup of unending horrors outside the train, threat from zombies inside the train, and – most importantly – threat from human passengers inside the train as a wide range of socioeconomic pressures build and explode in the pressure cooker of a sealed train car. People that (rightly) went nuts over Parasite will also want to catch this one. If you’re short on time and looking for one new horror to watch this season, for the love of The Great Pumpkin, make it this one.
(I recommend watching this one straight to take in the full cadence of the film, but as a rewatch Train to Busan was featured in Season 3 of The Last Drive-in With Joe Bob Briggs to much celebration.)
PG: Psycho Goreman
After watching this film I posted the following review to Instagram:
FUUUUUUUUUUCK THIS FUCKING MOVIE IS SO PERFECT I DIED WATCHING IT WAS RESURRECTED AND SAW GOD IN THE FORM OF A GIANT TACO PSYCHO GOREMAN IS MY RELIGION NOW.
If that wasn’t specific enough for you then allow me to elaborate.
Psycho Goreman is a near perfect homage and spoof of 1980s horror. Included are all the classics of the Cronenberg era of special effects, and the film centers around the iconic 80s horror trope of “kids getting knee deep in shit they don’t fully comprehend is terrifying.” I watched this with a buddy and our entire experience revolved around hysterical laughter while shouting “What the fuck?!” If you’re in for a bizarre (and I mean BIZARRE) sci-fi horror spoof, then I’m hard pressed to recommend a better movie. PG: Psycho Goreman is a Shudder Exclusive, and was a hell of a score for the platform.
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.
Tanith Lee is the kind of writer I’ve come across from time to time without ever having read anything by her. In retrospect, I think that’s probably because she mostly wrote fantasy, which is not often my cup of tea. Her career is outstanding though: she was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel, nominated for two Nebulas, received 11 nominations – and two wins – for the World Fantasy Award, and was awarded the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Horror, to name just a few! The daughter of two professional dancers, Tanith moved around a lot as a child, but shared a large library with her parents; a library which contained much “weird fiction”, as it was still known in the 1950s. Sharing a love of stories with her parents, Tanith reportedly began writing fiction at the age of nine. After a single year of college she dropped out to hold a number of random jobs before trying her hand as a professional writer. She is credited with nearly 100 novels and over 300 short stories that span genres from fantasy to science fiction to horror. With such a wide span, it was an absolute crapshoot what I was going to get.
Crying in the Rain
Originally published in Other Edens (1987)
Read in The Big Book of Science Fiction
If an author is in The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer) then I find I can’t go wrong picking the featured tale. (I honestly can’t recommend this collection enough.) Crying in the Rain is a quiet and sad tale that could have been set in the peasant lands of mythical times, but instead takes place in the radiated wasteland of a far future city and its surrounding ghettos. The tale centers on a mother selling her oldest and most attractive daughter to a young man in the city, and is told from the perspective of the daughter relating the story to a friend. There is no overt moral judgment here, which is the most upsetting aspect of the story. The world is harsh, life is short (a mere 30 years if you’re lucky and don’t get “canced” by the radiation), and selling your daughter to a good man is the best way to care for your remaining children. That prospect is no idle promise, as the man in question does care not only for the narrator’s siblings but for her dying mother as well. Her life is happy and she in contented as a result of being sold to this man, who showers her with gifts and affection for the first time in her life. This is a truly haunting story that will be with me for some time.
The Sombrus Tower
Originally published in Weird Tales #2 (1980)
Read in Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies (1988)
This reads as a King Arthur style fantasy that I could easily imagine coming across in a contemporary issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A number of noble knights are given ominous forecasts by a witch, and all go out to either confront, or avoid, their destiny. Our protagonist is one of the few who decide to confront his fate, seeking out the “Sombrus Tower” where he is to meet his doom. Excellent macabre creatures and tortured souls meet him along his journey to the tower, and these encounters carry the story from one scene to the next. In the end, the poetic nature of the tale is realized as our protagonist finds himself torn between his original “brave” quest to meet his destiny, and the sense that going in search of death maybe isn’t such a smart idea. The ending is worthy of any psychological horror story, and I won’t spoil it. This was a fun short piece of dark fantasy that I’d recommend to fans of the genre.
The Pandora Heart
Originally published in Don’t Open This Book! (1998)
Read in same
I was skeptical of this story as soon as I started reading it, as it was introduced with a comment that it was commissioned especially for the obscure anthology I was reading it in. That isn’t to say that I haven’t read lots of great stories in original anthologies, it’s just that I’ve not come across many outstanding stories commissioned for themed anthologies. I find that the best stories come from a writer pursuing their idea, rather than handing a writer an idea to pound a story around. This tale is a retelling of the Pandora myth with a few clever twists and turns, but largely it felt like an “unwanted princess in a castle” cookie cutter story meant to fit a theme. Combined with my ambivalence toward fantasy (especially fairy tale fantasy), this one was hard for me to get through.
If an author has published two or three dozen short stories, then you can grab a few and get an idea what they’re doing. When an author has written 300 short stories across multiple genres it is hard to get a handle on almost anything of their style by only reading three stories. I’ve probably read more Isaac Asimov than I have any other author, including stories he wrote across genres, and I can only imagine that for the one Tanith Lee story that I didn’t like there must be a dozen that I’d adore. For that reason I’ll hunt down more of her stories, and likely a few of her books, though I’ll probably focus on science fiction as a rule. That being said, I would recommend Tanith Lee’s works to fans of the fantasy and fairy tale genres.
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.