Science fiction is loaded with important authors, and you can hardly swing a stick in the crowded forest without hitting one author who's influenced hundreds of others. However, if you speak with enough genre writers, one name will likely come up often: Alfred Bester. "Alfred Bester was one of the handful of writers who invented modern science fiction," wrote Harry Harrison, while others such as James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), Samuel R. Delany, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Joe Haldeman, Robert Silverberg and Bruce Sterling have lined up to emphasize the importance of Bester's fiction on the state of the modern genre. Two of his novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are among the most highly regarded and influential works of the modern genre landscape.
Alfred Bester was born on December 18th, 1913 in Manhattan, where he spent much of his childhood. It was there, at an early age, that he found himself in love with science fiction and fantasy. He would borrow what books he could find from the library, and when Hugo Gernsback burst onto the scene with his brightly colored pulp magazines, he began reading whatever he could find. Often caught reading rather than buying the publications, he was chased off by the owner of a newsstand. By the time he entered the University of Pennsylvania, he found himself extremely frustrated with the state of the genre: The formulaic plots, cardboard characters and overt racism soured him on the publications of the early 1930s. With John W. Campbell’s helming of Astounding Magazine, he was thrilled to see the genre taken seriously once again, and was heartened at the new quality to the stories now being published.
Bester entered Columbia Law School following his graduation from college, but dropped out after an enlightening education. He married Rolly Goulko, a radio drama actress, and started writing his own science fiction stories, submitting his first, titled “Diaz-X” to Standard Magazines. It was rejected, but its editors, Jack Schiff and Mort Weisinger, recognized his talent and pointed him to a contest that Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine was running. They helped him revise his story, and it won the top prize, and was published under the title “The Broken Axiom,” appearing in the April 1939 issue.
From that point, he continued to write, penning a dozen stories for various pulp magazines, before jaunting over to another, similar industry: comic books. Schiff and Weisinger, recognizing a major shift in the publishing industry, left the pulps from which they had made their names and joined Detective Comics Inc, bringing over a number of authors that they had previously worked with: Edmund Hamilton, Henry Kuttner, and Alfred Bester among them. Bester knew little about the comic book industry and story types, but comic book author Bill Finger, best known for his character Batman, took him under his wing and helped him. Bester began working for characters such as Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Captain Marvel. He appreciated his time working with comics, later noting “[t]he comics gave me ample opportunity to get a lot of lousy writing out of my system.”
After several years, he found himself pulled into another industry, this time by his wife, whose radio show was in desperate need of scripts. Bester took a comic book script and translated for the new medium, to great success, and found himself working exclusively on scripts, starting with radio and eventually moving over to television. The work was enjoyable, but he soon found that the influence of networks and viewers were an impediment to the creative process, and, after he was told to be less original, he found himself frustrated. Around this time, he found himself called back to science fiction. He began writing for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and for Astounding Magazine. Then, one day, Galaxy Magazine editor Horace Gold called him out of the blue. Bester’s greatest contributions to the genre were about to come.
Galaxy Magazine was a new major publication run by Gold, who was notable for pushing his authors to new creative heights, publishing works such as Isaac Asimov’s landmark SF/Detective novel Caves of Steel and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.Bester pushed off Gold’s requests, noting that he was busy with a television program, but Gold was persistent. Soon, Bester relented, and the two began talking about story ideas, eventually settling on ESP and a society where crime was impossible. After extensive, daily discussions with Gold, he began to write between television scripts, eventually finishing The Demolished Man, which was then serialized in Galaxy Magazine, running from January to March 1952. The response was immediately positive for the novel, which follows a man bent on murdering a rival businessman and a police officer as they play a delicate game of cat and mouse. During PhilCon II, the 11th World Science Fiction convention, the novel was the recipient of the first ever Hugo Award for Best Novel.
1953 brought another novel from Bester, Who He?, a non-genre story about the television industry, which allowed him to move to Europe with his wife, and “a portable, my Commonplace Book, a thesaurus and an idea for another science fiction novel.” He had just picked up a regular writing gig with Holiday Magazine on the strength of that novel, and while overseas, he wrote about the television industries of Europe. The call of another science fiction novel beckoned, and he’d wanted to write about an anti-hero. After reading an article about a cook that had been stranded at sea during World War II, the elements of his next novel began to take shape. Writing between London and Rome, he wrote in fits and starts, sometimes requesting materials from American libraries through friends to research small details. First published in the UK as Tiger! Tiger!, the novel was serialized by Galaxy Magazine from October 1956 to January 1957 as The Stars My Destination.
The story follows Gully Foyle, a Mechanic’s Mate 3rd Class, stranded in the depths of the solar system and left for dead. Ignored by a passing ship, his rage motivated him to transform himself from his lowly beginnings to a man who transformed the solar system. With its cynical outlook, influences in psychology and rapid-fire prose, the novel became one of the most influential and popular works in the science fiction canon, and has helped to inspire both the New Wave and Cyberpunk movements that followed in the decades after its publication.
Bester would continue to write for Holiday Magazine and penned the occasional science fiction story, but his main legacy lies with The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Three other novels followed: The Computer Connection, which was published in 1975 and nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula, followed by Golem100 (1980) and The Deceivers (1981), but failed to hold the same influence as The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. By the late 1970s, Bester’s health began to fail, and in 1984, Rolly died of cancer, largely putting an end to his writing career. In 1987, the Science Fiction Writers of America named Bester the 9th Science Fiction Grandmaster. Before he could receive the honor, however, Bester broke his hip in a fall at his home in Ottsville, Penn., and he died due to complications from his injury on September 30th, 1987. Following his death, he left his entire estate to Joe Suder, bartender and long-time friend. Two additional novels were published following his death, Tender Loving Rage in 1991 and Psychoshop which was finished by Roger Zelazny in 1998.
Bester’s two major novels helped to shape the genre, becoming classics within the field and helping to influence such authors as William Gibson and Philip K. Dick. While his writing was not exclusive to the genre, it’s clear that his works have lived on through the authors that followed, shaping the modern face of the genre to this day. Ty Franck (one half of James S.A. Corey) noted in an interview that The Stars My Destination was a huge influence on his Expanse series: “I loved the solar system in which Gully Foyle has his adventure. A populated Mars and Luna, colonies on the moons of the outer planets, people living in the asteroid belt. I wanted to live there, too.”
Bester’s influence wasn’t limited to the works of science fiction literature. In the first season of the television series Babylon 5, creator J. Michael Stracynski wrote in a Psi Cop by the name of Alfred Bester, a fitting homage to Bester’s first novel.