Friday, November 21, 2008

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: The Computer Connection

Here's a new classic science fiction review, this time for Alfred Bester's wonderful The Computer Connection.

This is a toughie - not because this isn’t a great book, or that it’s hard to define - but because it’s one of my all-time favorites. You know: ‘stuck on a desert island with only three books’ kind of favorite. That’s the tough, you see - I know why it’s a great book, the trick is trying to find a way to tell you, out there, how good it really is.

So ... let’s start with the basics: Alfred Bester, the legend. Winner of the first Hugo for "The Demolished Man", established Grand Master of SF with such ground breakers as "Fondly Fahrenheit", "The Stars My Destination", and - later - with "The Deceivers" and (you either loved it or hated it) "Golem 100". Bester is also a legend in the radio and comic world, having worked on scripts for Charley Chan, The Shadow, Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern - in fact the Lantern Oath ("In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight, let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light") is Bester’s. Alfred was the original writer’s writer: he wrote for everyone, everywhere - but it’s his SF that he’s most known for.

For the longest time, the only place you could find Bester’s stuff was in the dusty halls of used book shops. Now you can pick up some of his best: "The Demolished Man", "The Stars My Destination", "Virtual Unrealities" (a collection of his marvelous short stories), "The Computer Connection", and even the book he left unfinished (and Roger Zelazny completed), "Psychoshop".

Even though his books are available it’s still sad that people don’t know Bester. Sigh. It’s especially disappointing when I hear people praise the stylistic endeavors of certain popular SF writers - when Bester blew them all away decades ago. As Harlan Ellison correctly states in his introduction to the "Computer Connection": “Bester was the mountain, all the rest of us merely climbers toward that peak.”

So what is it about Bester that just absolutely delights me? Well, man, you just have to be in the groove, capiche? You gotta plug in and ride the crazyhouse currents. Y? Y! Reading a Bester book is a trip, a stroboscopic madhouse of ideas, brilliant concepts, delightful characters, crackling language, and just plain fun. Now I don’t mean the kind of empty-headed fun you get nowadays - no, Bester’s fun is multi-language word play, obscure (but still understandable) references, and absolutely incredible, mind-boggling inventiveness.

Take, for example, "The Computer Connection" (also called "Extro" or "The Indian Giver"). In one blistering romp we have immortality, time-travel, cyberpunk (long before Gibson was born or computers got personal), cloning, an Amerinds nation in the toxic dump that was Lake Erie, characters like the nymphet Fee-5 Graumans Chinese (so named because she was born in the fifth row of the theater and is kinda of snotty about it), Dr. Sequoya Guess, a trip to Titan, a merging of man and computer, and, and, and ... overload!

Our hero is one Ned Curzon; a delightful fellow who’d been transformed into an immortal through an strange accident involving the explosive destruction of Krakatoa, and a member of an extended family of same eternal and eccentric folks: Nemo, Herb Wells, The Syndicate, Hillel the Jew, Borgia, Jacy (yes, that J.C.), Sam Pepys (not their realsies, you understand, just their ‘nom de years’). Ned, it seems, has been nicknamed Guigol (Guig for short), for his attempts to indoctrinate other people into their unique group. The problem, you see, is that to become immortal you have to go through a lot of terror and pain - and a lot of folks just don’t make it. Guigol as in Grand Guigol.

Then, right out of left field, the Group has a new member, the brilliant Amerid scientist Dr. Sequoya Guess - but an unforeseen side effect slipped into the immortality process as well, a side effect that has linked Guess to the Extro, the planet-wide system of intelligent machines and has given him incredible abilities and a lethal intent towards Guig and the members of his delightful group. As the back cover puts it: so how do you kill an immortal?

Stop, wait - I’ve sinned: you can’t describe a Bester book like you’d give a pitch for a block-buster flick. His ideas are mercurial: slippery and brilliant. Each page - no, each paragraph - sparkles with insane wit and crackling imagination. Now that trick - pyrokinetic writing - isn’t all that hard, but the miracle is that when Bester does this he also makes you care for these people. When characters get hurt, die, you might have only known them for a few lines, a few pages but - damnit - you feel the tears start. You really want to know these people, this glorious family of immortals and the various other folks that dance and cavort in any of Bester’s books. Bester was never a ‘hard’ SF writer - his science is as slippery and quick as his style - but then you don’t read his books to see if he crossed all his t’s or dotted his i’s ... no, you read Bester to take a wondrous trip, to be told a story by one of the few true masters of science fiction, of modern literature.

Well, I tried folks - tried my ever-lovin’ darnedest to pin down the beautiful brilliance of Alfred Bester. I gave it my best shot, trying to capsulize the effervescent, freeze-frame lightning. I guess there’s only one way to find out if I succeeded or not: go out - now - and pick up a copy of any of his books and see. It’s more than worth it.

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