Alfred Bester (December 18, 1913 – September 30, 1987) was an American science fiction author, TV and radio scriptwriter, magazine editor and scripter for comic strips and comic books. Though successful in all these fields, he is probably best remembered today for his science fiction, including The Demolished Man, winner of the inaugural Hugo Award in 1953.
Science fiction author Harry Harrison wrote, "Alfred Bester was one of the handful of writers who invented modern science fiction."
Shortly before his death, the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) named Bester its ninth Grand Master, presented posthumously in 1988.The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted him in 2001.
Alfred Bester was born in Manhattan, New York City, on December 18, 1913. His father James J. Bester owned a shoe store and was a first-generation American whose parents were both Austrian. Alfred's mother, Belle (née Silverman), was born in Russia and spoke Yiddish as her first language before coming to America as a youth. Alfred was James and Belle's second and final child, and only son. (Their first child, Rita, was born in 1908.) Though his father was of Jewish background, and his mother became a Christian Scientist, Alfred Bester himself was not raised within any religious traditions; he wrote that "his home life was completely liberal and iconoclastic."
Bester attended the University of Pennsylvania where he was a member of the Philomathean Society. He played on the football team in 1935 and, by his own account, was "the most successful member of the fencing team." He went on to Columbia Law School, but tired of it and dropped out.
Bester and Rolly Goulko married in 1936. Rolly Bester had a successful career as a Broadway, radio and television actress before changing careers to become an advertising executive during the 1960s. The Besters remained married for 48 years until her death on January 12, 1984. Bester was very nearly a lifelong New Yorker, although he lived in Europe for a little over a year in the mid-1950s and moved to Pennsylvania with Rolly in the early 1980s. Once settled there, they lived on Geigel Hill Road in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.
Early SF career, comic books, radio (1939–50)
After his university career, 25-year-old Alfred Bester was working in public relations when he turned to writing science fiction. Bester's first published short story was the "The Broken Axiom", which appeared in the April 1939 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories after winning an amateur story competition. Bester recalled, "Two editors on the staff, Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff, took an interest in me, I suspect mostly because I'd just finished reading and annotating Joyce's Ulysses and would preach it enthusiastically without provocation, to their great amusement. ... They thought "Diaz-X" [Bester's original title] might fill the bill if it was whipped into shape." (Robert Heinlein declined to enter the same contest.)
Mort Weisinger also "introduced me to the informal luncheon gatherings of the working science fiction authors of the late thirties." He met Henry Kuttner, Edmond Hamilton, Otto Binder, Malcolm Jameson and Manly Wade Wellman there. During 1939 and 1940 Weisinger published three more of his stories in Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories.
For the next few years, Bester continued to publish short fiction, most notably in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. In 1942, two of his science fiction editors got work at DC Comics, and invited Bester to contribute to various DC titles. Consequently, Bester left the field of short story writing and began working for DC Comics as a writer on Superman, Green Lanternand other titles. It is popularly believed that Bester wrote the version of the Green Lantern Oath that begins "In brightest day, In darkest night", though he denied it.
Bester was also the writer for Lee Falk's comic strips The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician while their creator served in World War II. It is widely speculated how much influence Bester had on these comics. One theory claims that Bester was responsible for giving the Phantom his surname, "Walker".
After four years in the comics industry, in 1946 Bester turned his attention to radio scripts, after wife Rolly (a busy radio actress) told him that the show Nick Carter, Master Detective was looking for story submissions. Over the next few years, Bester wrote for Nick Carter, as well as The Shadow, Charlie Chan, Nero Wolfe and other shows. He later wrote for The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.
With the advent of American network television in 1948, Bester also began writing for television, although most of these projects were lesser-known.
In early 1950, after eight years away from the field, Bester resumed writing science fiction short stories. However, after an initial return to Astounding with the story "The Devil's Invention" (aka "Oddy and Id"), he stopped writing for the magazine in mid-1950 when editor John Campbell became preoccupied with L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, the forerunner to Scientology. Bester then turned to Galaxy Science Fiction, where he found in H. L. Gold another exceptional editor as well as a good friend.
In New York, he socialized at the Hydra Club, an organization of New York's science fiction writers, including such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Anthony Boucher, Avram Davidson,Judith Merril, and Theodore Sturgeon.
The classic period: 1951–57
In his first period of writing science fiction (1939–1942), Bester had been establishing a reputation as a short story writer in science fiction circles with stories such as "Adam and No Eve". However, Bester gained his greatest renown for the work he wrote and published in the 1950s, including The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger!).
The Demolished Man (1953)
The Demolished Man, recipient of the first Hugo Award for best Science Fiction novel, is a police procedural that takes place in a future world in which telepathy is relatively common. Bester creates a harshly capitalistic, hierarchical and competitive social world that exists without deceit: a society where the right person with some skill (or money) and curiosity can access your memories, secrets, fears and past misdeeds more swiftly than even you.
Originally published in three parts in Galaxy, beginning in January 1952, The Demolished Man appeared in book form in 1953. It was dedicated to Gold, who made a number of suggestions during its writing. Originally, Bester wanted the title to be Demolition!, but Gold talked him out of it.
Who He? aka The Rat Race (1953)
Bester's 1953 novel Who He? concerns a TV variety show writer who wakes up after an alcoholic blackout and discovers that someone is out to destroy his life. A contemporary novel with no science-fiction elements, it did not receive wide attention. It did, however, earn Bester a fair amount of money from the sale of the paperback reprint rights (the book appeared in paperback as The Rat Race). He also received a substantial sum of money from a movie studio for the film option to the book. Reportedly, Jackie Gleason was interested in starring as the variety show writer; however no movie was ever made of Who He? Still, the payout from the film option was large enough that Alfred and Rolly Bester decided they could afford to travel to Europe for the next few years. They lived mainly in Italy and England during this period.
The Stars My Destination (1956)
Bester's next novel was outlined while he was living in England and mostly written when he was living in Rome. The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger, Tiger) had its origins in a newspaper clipping that Bester found about Poon Lim, a shipwrecked World War II sailor on a raft, who had drifted unrescued in the Pacific for a world record 133 days because passing ships thought he was a lure to bring them within torpedo range of a hidden submarine. From that germ grew the story of Gully Foyle, seeking revenge for his abandonment and causing havoc all about him: a science fiction re-telling of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo with teleportation added to the mix. It has been described as an ancestor of cyberpunk.
As had occurred with The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination was originally serialized in Galaxy. It ran in four parts (October 1956 through January 1957) and the book was published later in 1957. Though repeatedly voted in polls the "Best Science Fiction Novel of All Time', The Stars My Destination would prove to be Bester's last novel for 19 years. A radio adaptation was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1991.
Film adaptations of The Stars My Destination have been frequently rumored. Charlie Jane Anders wrote in 2010, "According to [David] Hughes' Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, Richard Gereowned the rights to this novel right after his success with Pretty Woman, and wanted to star in it. Later, NeverEnding Story producer Bernd Eichinger had the rights and hired Neal Adams to do concept art. Still later, Paul W.S. Anderson was set to direct it, but wound up doing Event Horizon instead. Since then, a number of scripts have been written, but the film's gotten no closer to happening."
Magazine fiction and non-fiction: 1959–62
While on his European trip, Bester began selling non-fiction pieces about various European locations to the mainstream travel/lifestyle magazine Holiday. The Holiday editors, impressed with his work, invited Bester back to their headquarters in New York and began commissioning him to write travel articles about various far-flung locales, as well as doing interviews with such stars asSophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, and Sir Edmund Hillary. As a result of steady work with Holiday, Bester's science fiction output dropped precipitously in the years following the publication of The Stars My Destination.
Bester published three short stories each in 1958 and 1959, including 1958's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" and 1959's "The Pi Man", both of which were nominated for Hugo Awards. However, for a four-year period from October 1959 to October 1963, he published no fiction at all. Instead, he concentrated on his work at Holiday (where he was made a senior editor), reviewed books for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (from 1960 to 1962) and returned to television scripting.
During the 1950s, Bester contributed a satiric sketch, "I Remember Hiroshima," to The Paul Winchell Show. His later story "Hobson's Choice" was based on it.
In 1959, Bester adapted his 1954 story "Fondly Fahrenheit" to television as Murder and the Android. Telecast in color on October 18, 1959, the hour-long drama took place in the year 2359 amid futuristic sets designed by Ted Cooper. This NBC Sunday Showcase production, produced by Robert Alan Aurthur with a cast of Kevin McCarthy, Rip Torn, Suzanne Pleshette and Telly Savalas, was reviewed by syndicated radio-television critic John Crosby:
- Despite the fact that the androids refer contemptuously to human beings as people who suffer from glandular disorders called emotions, Torn wants very much to suffer from these disorders himself. Eventually, he does. I have no intention of unraveling the whole plot which was not so much complicated as psychologically dense. If I understand him correctly, Mr. Bester is trying to say that having androids to free us of mundane preoccupations like work is by no means good for us. His humans are pretty close to being bums.
Murder and the Android was nominated for a 1960 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was given a repeat on September 5, 1960, the Labor Day weekend in which that Hugo Award was presented (to The Twilight Zone) at the World Science Fiction Convention in Pittsburgh. Bester returned to Sunday Showcase March 5, 1960 with an original teleplay, Turn the Key Deftly. Telecast in color, that mystery, set in a traveling circus, starred Julie Harris, Maximilian Schell and Francis Lederer.
For Alcoa Premiere, hosted by Fred Astaire, he wrote Mr. Lucifer, which aired November 1, 1962 with Astaire in the title role opposite Elizabeth Montgomery.
Senior editor of Holiday: 1963–71
After a four-year layoff, Bester published a handful of science-fiction short stories in 1963 and 1964. However, writing science-fiction was at this stage in Bester's life clearly more of a sideline than the focus of his career. As a result, from 1964 until the original version of Holiday folded in 1971, Bester published only one science-fiction short story, a 700-word science fiction spoof in the upscale mainstream magazine Status.
Still, as senior editor of Holiday, Bester was able to introduce occasional science-fiction elements into the non-fiction magazine. On one occasion, he commissioned and published an article byArthur C. Clarke describing a tourist flight to the Moon. Bester himself, though, never published any science fiction in Holiday, which was a mainstream travel/lifestyle magazine marketed to upscale readers during an era when science fiction was largely dismissed as juvenilia.
Later career: 1972–87
Holiday magazine ceased publication in 1971, although it was later revived and reformatted by other hands, without Bester's involvement. For the first time in nearly 15 years, Bester did not have full-time employment.
After a long layoff from writing science fiction, Bester returned to the field in 1972. His 1974 short story "The Four-Hour Fugue" was nominated for a Hugo Award, and Bester received Hugo andNebula Award nominations for his 1975 novel The Computer Connection (titled The Indian Giver as a magazine serial and later reprinted as Extro). Despite these nominations, Bester's work of this era generally failed to receive the critical or commercial success of his earlier period.
Bester's eyesight began failing in the mid-1970s, making writing increasingly difficult, and another layoff from published writing took place between early 1975 and early 1979. It is alleged during this period that the producer of the 1978 Superman movie sent his son off to search for a writer. The name Alfred Bester came up, but Bester wanted to focus the story on Clark Kent as the real hero, while Superman was only "his gun." The producers instead hired Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, to write the film.
Carolyn Wendell wrote, "I shall always remember the time I saw Alfie Bester in larger-than-life action, at an academic conference in New York City ten years before he died":
Bester had been invited to share a panel with Charles L. Grant, Isaac Asimov, and Ben Bova. He arrived attired in well-worn high-top sneakers, jeans whose major characteristic was that they looked comfortable, and a sports coat whose better days had been years before. He carried what must have been the world's largest jock bag, crammed with newly-purchased bottles of wine that did not quite fit into the zippered closing. He sat down behind a long table with the other writers and managed to behave conventionally for about half the discussion. Then, apparently able to stay put no longer, he leapt up, walked around to the front of the table to be closer to the audience, and paced back and forth, gesturing and talking. The other three writers (none exactly shrinking violets) tried to interrupt but finally lapsed into what might have been either respectful or overwhelmed silence. It was one of the most extraordinary performances I have ever seen.
Bester published two short stories in 1979 and rang in the 1980s with the publication of two new novels: Golem100 (1980), and The Deceivers (1981). In addition to his failing eyesight, other health issues began to affect him, and Bester produced no new published work after 1981. His wife Rolly died in 1984.
In 1985, it was announced that Bester would be Guest of Honor at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Brighton. As the event neared, however, Bester fell and broke his hip. With his worsening overall health, he was plainly too ill to attend. Doris Lessing stepped in as a last-minute replacement.
Bester died less than a month after the convention from complications related to his broken hip. However, shortly before his death he learned that the Science Fiction Writers of America would honor him with their Grand Master Nebula award at their 1988 convention.
Two works by Bester were issued posthumously. The first, Tender Loving Rage (1991), was a mainstream (i.e., non-science fiction) novel that was probably written in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The second, Psychoshop (1998), was based on an incomplete 92-page story fragment. It was completed by Roger Zelazny and remained unpublished until three years after Zelazny's death. When issued, it was credited as a collaborative work.
Alfred Bester had no children, and according to legend, left everything to his bartender, Joe Suder. That much is, in fact, true. However, the claim that Suder didn't know or remember Bester is legend rather than fact; Bester stopped by Suder's bar every morning on his way to get his mail, and the two men were friends.
The Science Fiction Writers of America made Bester its 9th SFWA Grand Master in 1988 (announced before his 1987 death) and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted him in 2001, its sixth class of two deceased and two living writers.
Beside winning the inaugural Hugo Award he was one of the runners-up for several annual literary awards.