After reading his novel The Stars My Destination and this collection of short stories, Alfred Bester is becoming one of my favorite sci-fi writers of the 50’s/60’s era. He was comparatively unprolific compared to the stable of writers churning out short stories every week to the tune of 5 cents a word, his pace was hardly glacial, he was just often distracted by day jobs. Throughout the 40’s Bester wrote for comics (Superman and Green Lantern), comic strips (The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician), and radio (The Shadow, Charlie Chan, and more). Bester was certainly able to keep the bills paid and contributed heavily to the genre pop art of the era, but there was little published prose work in the 40’s.
Bester’s most notable work was published in the 50’s with three novels and two collections of short stories published between 1953 and 1964, all but one novel being science fiction work. In 1963 he would accept an editorship for Holiday magazine and his science fiction disappeared until the mid 70’s. The Dark Side of the Earth, a collection of seven short stories, was his last collection before his hiatus. The cover actually claims “a short novel an six short stories” but honestly the longest story is just a touch over 40 pages, and I don’t call that a short novel where I come from.
Bester’s work shows a great deal of humor, most distinctly in one of his most known stories, “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”. A scientist discovers his wife in the arms of another man and decides to build a time machine to go back and kill her parents before she was ever conceived, but after the murder he returns to the present and finds his wife still alive. He keeps changing history to attempt her erasure but is never successful. Eventually he becomes more interested in the scientific problem of time travel and forgets his anger and thirst for revenge. In “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” a woman believes herself to be the last person alive after the apocalypse until she comes across a shy man walking through the ruins of New York. She invites him to stay at her place, a place she fixed up after the holocaust. She of course has a guest room. He asks her why she has a guest room when she thought she was the last person a live. She responds simply, “a proper house has to have a guest room.”
Bester’s science is often weak. I’ve found some sci-fi fans who are turned off by science fiction that doesn’t follow a reasonable amount of scientific logic. Bester skips the descriptions and explanations that later sci-fi writers would over-embrace, a character might have a strange power just because that strange power could lead to an interesting story, as in “Pi Man” where the main character must compulsively compensate for the world’s imbalances. By abandoning scientific logic (while still following story logic) Bester builds upon imagination. The first page can sometimes read conceptually like your buddy pitching you a ridiculous movie idea (“Out of this World” is like a star-crossed, infidelity-soaked version of Frequency), but Bester’s execution delivers consistently with humor organic to the characters and original ideas.
Sadly this collection, and much of Bester’s work is long out of print. Thank God for used book stores. I found my copy for $5 at Acorn Bookshop in Columbus, OH, probably my favorite used book store in the area. Of course, I got the only copy they had when I was there. If you don’t have a book store as cool as Acorn near you please consider buying it from Amazon through my link.