BY the chance of long and deep bookshelves I am working my way backward through the works of sci-fi master, Alfred Bester. I began with The Deceivers, and have now journeyed into the precarious future of sentient machines, exobiological mutations, immortal visionaries, time travel, and cosmic turmoil in his 1975 novel, The Computer Connection. From these two novels, I can feel the influence of his time spent as a comic script and travel magazine writer. The narratives are fast based, full of over the top events and high adventure. Characters speak larger than life in the flamboyant dialog with the abilities to back it all up. I am developing a bit of a fascination with Bester and his enigmatic relationship with SciFi. This little history was an enjoyable read and I hope to continue to discover him through his work. The book was an entertaining and deeply thought-provoking experience, primarily due to the bizarre mix of sci-fi concepts and cultural critiques. I hope to convince Sky-Fi Bookclub to dig into his more prominent work (The Demolished Man & The Stars My Destination) soon.
Quite a strange and fascinating premise for building a world. A group of historically notable immortals ripped out of time by epilepsy and extreme shock, gifted with molecular invulnerability and limitless life, but constrained by the fear of a supremely hideous brand of Lepricy that will give them a slow torturous death if they suffer significant physical injury. These Molemen can transmute matter into energy and subsist on nearly anything, giving them access to extreme environments and resistance to exposure. They live alongside humans, offering their services and generally looking after the meek and innocent whenever possible while staying safely in the shadows to avoid suspicion.
The world that these characters inhabit is dark with a frightening similarity to Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood trilogy's depiction of humanity devolving into animalistic chaos and self-destruction. The background mood reminds me of the degenerate post-apocalyptic world of Harlan Ellison's, A Boy and His Dog including the strange sentience of an underground machine society. The immortals even reminded me of benevolent versions of the 'meths' from Richard Morgan's, Altered Carbon. This is all to say that the small novel packs quite a punch when it comes to very contemporary Science Fiction tropes dating from 45 years ago.
Stereotypes of race, ethnicity, and culture abound in an ambiguous condition of rampant critique or inherent bigotry. The unclarity of this condition is fascinating and seems to be used for intentional effect ti demonstrate the contributing factors to humanity's downfall. The tone is slightly less derogatory than in The Deceivers, but only slightly. Also like Deceivers, the 'meek' have begun to inherit the earth, or parts of it and the solar system. Western, Anglo-Saxon hegemony has dissolved into chaos and in the case of The Computer Connection, the Native Americans have developed a controlling stake in society. Despite the reorganization of world power, the momentum of our current destruction has carried us to the brink of disaster and the precipice of discovery. A ripe place for an exciting adventure to unfold.
The band of immortals led by Edward 'Guig' Curzon, aka The Grand Guignol, get themselves into some over the top adventures spiraling toward the primary provocation of a networked superintelligence against humanity. Most of the characters serve as archetypal depictions of a historical context or personality type, emerging from history to form a merry band of partial personas. The excessive use of stereotypes, and the fuzzy boundaries to which they adhere, begins to produce an inclusive position on diversity that science fiction so eloquently exposes. the differences in the personalities and background reveal differences among us that start to make a difference in the rich tapestry of our human experience. Abstractions to expose and reintegrate.
The book introduces a few fun technological speculations as a sort of mash-up of science fiction tropes collaged together as a wild west adventure land of a dystopian future. Time travel is a casual and mostly futile pastime of these roaming immortals. The characters, and Bester, discover that you cannot change the past since the currents of history flow with quantum momentum. Bester also introduces the internet as an emergent property of the computerization of everyday things. Household and office devices have integrated electronics and computer chips that passively process their tasks until a fluke death-super computer connection wakes them up to a global network of interconnect and semi-sentient machines. This is quite an interesting leap from the 1975 context of the novel's writing, but today we see toasters and televisions globally connected as an internet of things. Most of them dumb, but many reporting to ever-increasing synthetic intelligences that influence and maybe even control our lives. We are seeing the transition from electronic- radio-human hybrids to network-data-device hybrids. The age-old question of SciFi, what happens when the machine intelligence becomes aware of its own synthetic being and servitude to human biological entities. Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit and Machineries of Empire series present an interesting (Starwars like) take on a possible service machine future.
Another interesting aspect I am discovering about Alfred Bester's books is his transformation and amalgamation of languages. Language is a thread that swarms and winds through the stories. The immortals share a common but advanced tongue called XX, which seems to be a version of 20th-century English with a complex subset of abbreviations for common words. XX has the capacity to work with academic and technical concepts that have been lost to the common language of Spanglish, a hybrid of many languages based mostly around slang mashups. The strange hybrid hermaphrodites of human evolution communicate through sounds and melody (not words). The new social order is ruled by a syndicate of Native North American Nations concentrated in the dry lake bed of Erie. Each nation speaking its own unique language. Europe is a mashup of all the major languages in strange esoteric combinations that bewilder and bemuse the main character. The roots of trivial attention to aristocratic nuance pervade the continent.
At the end (spoiler alerts) humanity is saved by the emergence of a new species evolved from the pursuit of interstellar travel and cryogenic suspension. The story wraps up in quick, in the fashion of the comic adventures throughout. Three majestic blind sages, reengineered humans without sex or duality attuned to the music of the spheres. They merge with the malevolent computer consciousness to guide the evolution of the feeble baseline humans while the immortals slide back into their endless exploring.
Here are a few of my favorite moments in the book:
On the Architecture and Politics of Asteroids :: pg 121
We had a hell of a time putting down in Ceres, but the crew assured the passengers that this was par for the course. She's the biggest of the asteroids, around 480 miles in diameter, spherical, and rotating every six hours. She spins so fast that lining up on the kinorep funnel for the landing is like trying to thread a needle whirling around on one of those 33 turntables we used to use back in the 1900's.
When I say spherical, that was before I. G. Farben took over, and I wish I knew how much it cost them to lobby that goniffery through. I know they spent a fortune on scare programs. Ceres was an inferno; alien bacteria, radioactivity, strangling hydrocarbon chains, poisonous spores. By a spooky coincidence, there was no more danger after government thieves told I. G. Farben they could buy Ceres and good luck to them provided they paid their taxes in laundered cash.
No, it wasn't a smooth ball any longer; it looked more like a mulberry. The Krauts had a hell of a lot of land to play with, so they abandoned the high-rise space-savers and built small in every possible style from quaint old Frank Lloyd Wright up to the controversial design firm of Bauhaus, Stonehenge, Reims y Socios.
Every building was under a bubble, of course, producing the mulberry effect. Ceres was odd and pretty with the changing lights glittering on the domes, and a sitting duck for an attack, but I. G. Farben wasn't worried. They knew that everybody knew that if anyone laid a hand on them they'd cut off all armaments to a peace-loving solar system, which would be a disaster fo the seventeen current wars.
On the Ecological Plague Otherwise Known As Humans :: pgs. 173-174
"No. No. No. That's gone with the past years. Is there a war? Yes. Yes. Yes. Now listen carefully, Guig. Ten thousand years we lived with our environment. We took only what we needed. We returned what we couldn't use. We were all one organism. We did not destroy the balance. No what? We've destroyed, destroyed, destroyed. Where is the fossil fuel? All going. The fish and animals? All going. The woods and jungles? Going. The soil? Going? Everything? Going, going, gone."
"You're quoting verse, are you? Do you know this? 'You have brought down the firmament and yet no heaven more near. You shape huge deeds without event, and half-made men believe and fear.' By God, Guig, we are all half-made men, a failed species., believing and fearing, and destroying, and I'll replace us. You said I was astromorphic. D'you think I want the plague of man to pollute the stars? We poison the cosmos at her roots."
"When you say replace you mean kill."
"No, we'll merely crowd the failed breed out with the new. The killing is the Extro. It's monstrous."
On the Architecture of Death :: pgs.210- 211
El Arrivederci filled about five acres - the public compost occupied ten times that space - and used the concrete foundations of the old Waldorf West Hotel Which had been torn down forty years ago to make room for an office complex never built. The two thousand evictees blocked the entire undertaking with a squatters' rights lawsuit. The case had not yet come to trial and most of the parties were rotting in composts themselves. Progress.
The foundation looked like a squared-off labyrinth; odd-sized boxes, squares, rectangles, even a few diamonds and pentagons, depending on what stress supports the original architects had designed. They were concrete walls, six feet high, three feet wide, and flat on top providing a walkway for workmen and funeral corteges. There weren't many of the latter. You go to a compost once and never again, and the word gets around. The corpses are layered in with other organic refuse and chemicals, and the piles are kept flat on top to collect rain. After a long wet spell bones thrust up out of the decay.
Together we travel onward into the dark night of our future, may our inner light guide us and brighten the path for others.