When it came to college, someone once told me to save everything. And I did. For years now, cloud storage has held a treasure trove of bad writing and half-assed ideas for me. With only the first couple of years as exceptions, I still have everything I ever wrote in college saved for a much older me to one day laugh at his much younger self. Today, I am unleashing one of those documents: my Alfred Bester Speech.
It happened during, fittingly-enough, my Speech class. I was taking it as a General Education requirements. I had been dreading the notion since I hate giving speeches, but it ended up being one of my favorite classes. The professor was great (and funny). He also decided to call me Murf, which is at least partially why I use that nickname so much today. It also helped that I made a few friends in the class, including a very attractive Puerto Rican lady who ended up leveling in Wrath of the Lich King with me. (She turned out to be a bit of a jerk and a Republican, though I don’t consider those two things to be related.)
I don’t recall exactly why I chose to speak about Alfred Bester or what the in-class context was, but I am still happy with the result:
“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying … but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks … but nobody loved it.” That’s how Alfred Bester started off his second most famous novel, The Stars My Destination, my favorite of his works. Most of you have probably never heard of Mr. Bester, or even The Stars My Destination, but by the end of this speech, you will know the influence he had in the genre.
Born in 1913, Bester published his first short story in 1939. In 1942, he started working for DC Comics where he wrote most notably for Superman and Green Lantern. According to a friend and a fellow writer, Harry Harrison,” Alfred Bester was one of the handful of writers who invented modern science fiction. He had cut his teeth in the comics where he learned color, action, and motion: the POW! And ZAP! of the artists. He learned to write visually and evoke those feelings in the reader.” In a genre dominated by what would become known as hard science fiction, Bester used his experience in the comics to write science fiction that though set in the future or using something beyond current human understanding, was readily accessible to all types of readers, and at a time when most writers were avoiding the growing field of psychology, Bester explored it and used it to help define his characters.
Howard Thurman, an American theologian, once said “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And though I doubt he and Bester ever crossed paths, this quote directly applies to the two main characters of Bester’s two greatest novels. In The Stars My Destination, the main character is Gully Foyle, a nobody maintenance worker trapped on a crashed spaceship who after being passed over by a friendly ship without help, vows absolute revenge on that ship’s crew. In many ways, it is a retelling of Alexander Dumas’s classic The Count of Monte Cristo set in a world of space travel, interplanetary conflict, and teleportation. The most famous of Bester’s words, The Demolished Man, is the story of Ben Reich, one of the most powerful businessmen alive, who plans to murder his biggest rival. The only catch is Lincoln Powell, a member of the Esper Guild, a worker’s union for telepaths, and a lead police detective. Both books have main characters, who are only really alive when madness takes them over.
The Demolished Man is the book that secured Bester’s place in the pantheon of great science fiction authors of the modern age. The novel won the first ever Hugo award in 1953, an award that has also gone to such greats as Ray Bradbury, the writer of Fahrenheit 451; Robert Heinlein, the writer of Starship Troopers; J.K. Rowling, the writer of the Harry Potter series; and Isaac Asimov, who is so influential in science fiction you can pick up a magazine named after him right now.
Harlan Ellison, a noted science fiction writer and a writer for the first Star Trek series, once called Bester “the preeminent Class Act of imaginative literature.” Though some of his contemporaries have remained popular and well-known, Bester’s work has been overlooked in recent years. Despite this, many authors still remember the first time they read some of his work.
In closing, I leave you with a quote from Bester’s close friend, Harry Harrison. “These books are a reflection of their author, and to know Alfred was a great and personal pleasure.