On Alfred Bester

Breakthroughs

Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension and dissension have begun.

I was much impressed by the mind-block jingle used by Ben Reich in The Demolished Man to screen his thoughts from telepathic police. I was instantly convinced that emanations from my own sewer-of-consciousness must be steaming out into enemy airspace. I was about thirteen....

The gangling Langford of those days was morbidly keen on personal privacy in which to do alienated, existential things like reading SF magazines. Privacy was in short supply: even after midnight, parental shock-troops would burst through the door to confiscate one's torch and battered old serialization of The Stars My Destination. (Overall, Alfred Bester had an exceedingly bad effect on me.) And now even thoughts weren't safe. Tension, apprehension and dissension....

I mercifully don't remember just how seriously I took it, but there was an embarrassing scrap of supporting evidence: other people did eavesdrop on what I thought were thoughts. A tendency to clarify thinking by muttering under my breath was sabotaged by my hearing problem. In the vernacular, I couldn't hear myself think. But all too often my mother could.

For years and years after this alarming perceptual breakthrough, my brain still carried the scars. These took the form of a mental subprogram which on detection of deeply shameful thoughts would burst into distracting song... not usually Tenser, said the Tensor but some extract from what you might call the Nerd's Garden of Verse: poems quoted in my favourite literature. If like pubescent me you read nothing but SF, the resulting thoat's-eye view of English poesy is hard to shake off. (I knew Swinburne was a terrifically major poet, because millions of SF writers swiped the same lines from The Garden of Proserpine. Conversely, by the same implacable yardstick, Wordsworth and Yeats and Auden and Eliot weren't up to much. Hardly anyone quoted them.)

Later on, as school and university went by, I grew less keen on being an Outsider. Those thick invisible walls between my thoughts and yours are difficult enough to signal through, even without angry young poses of aloofness and alienation. Spike Milligan's throwaway line "His thoughts, few that they were, lay silent in the privacy of his head" is funny and too true. Thoughts lie too silent; they lose too much when fumblingly translated into words.

This not very profound insight might have come sooner if at the time I'd ever read anything but SF. It provoked a whole sequence of unpublished skiffy stories, lumbering metaphors of emotion and communication. As they used to say at the Pieria writers' group, "God, not another chunk of Langford sex-perversion-and-telepathy!" I meant to quote from one here, but the mere recollection of their literary value starts me thinking, very hastily, tension, apprehension and dissension have begun... tension, apprehension and dissension have begun....


The Editor My Destination

It is not often that I pick up an issue of Quantum and cry aloud, 'You bastard, Arthur Haupt!' But this man's compulsively detailed discussion of Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (alias Tiger! Tiger!) in issue 42 did rather cut the ground from under a tiny piece I'd been planning, on the question of just what is the definitive version of the typographical special effects in that fabled synaesthesia sequence. According to me, the indications are that no published text has ever featured the entirety of what Bester wanted.

The much-reprinted British edition Tiger! Tiger! has stayed more or less unchanged since the Sidgwick and Jackson hardback of 1956, through subsequent paperbacks by Panther, Penguin and Mandarin (and a 1984 hardback in the short-lived Goodchild 'SF Alternatives' series of classics). It still regularly tops All-Time Best SF Novel polls here. Unhappily, this setting of the book simply leaves out all visual effects which are even slightly difficult to handle in type. Even the male and female symbols in the names of the Scientific People were too much trouble. Phrases like 'RED RECEDED FROM HIM ... GREEN LIGHT ATTACKED ... INDIGO UNDULATED WITH SHUDDERING SPEED' are not shown in lettering that grows, shrinks or wiggles, but in plain small capitals. The little bits of artwork for 'a scintillating mist ... a snowflake cluster of stars ... a shower of liquid diamonds' are simply omitted -- though they did have a go at the 'strand of cool pearls', with a wobbly line of small O's.

What caught my eye way back in the 1970s was that even without knowledge of US versions, the British text has two blatant omissions. Two paragraphs in the 'synaesthesia' section of the narrative end with colons, clearly introducing special effects which don't actually appear. One is 'The churning of the surf blinded him with the lights of batteries of footlights:' -- followed by a solid block of asterisks in the original Galaxy serialization ...

************
************
************
************
************
************

... and, in the deeply ugly type of the 1970s Berkley paperback, two wavering lines of asterisks which look less like footlights though more like surf. There may be nothing there in my various British copies, but at least I know how it ought to look.

What, however, about the next effect just two paragraphs later? Has anyone ever seen it? Foyle speaks and 'The sound came out in burning star-bubbles:' ... but not even the Berkley version offers anything after this colon. The formerly helpful Galaxy serial rewrites the sentence to omit the colon cue, offering: 'The sound came out in burning, babbling, burbling star-bubbles.' Ugh. I have a suspicion that Galaxy editor Horace Gold, who was slightly notorious for putting in little bits of his own, might have been responsible for this seeming effort at distraction from whatever's missing here.

In fact there is a faint whiff of censorship in the air. As all true sf fans (who naturally know the book by heart) will have been muttering for some while, we experience the beach scene twice thanks to the time-travel of the Burning Man and know exactly what it is that Foyle says but does not appear as a graphic effect:

'Christ!'

I wonder. In Bester's original MS, was this word perhaps manically patterned to form a typewriter-picture of a cross or -- 'burning star-bubbles' -- several crosses? Did all three editors decide to cut out this one 'controversial' typewriter-doodle on the basis that it was all right to say 'Christ!' but not to flaunt it in typewriter effects? (First Gold with a camouflaging rewrite in Galaxy, then someone at Sidgwick and Jackson in Britain for the 1956 Tiger! Tiger! and someone else at Signet for the 1957 The Stars My Destination? I am assuming the Berkley text accurately follows Signet's, just as every British edition follows S&J's.) Or did Bester himself think better of it but accidentally leave the introductory colon in place for each of the two slightly different book versions? Are the original typescripts preserved in some university library? If not, why not?

Not long ago an sf fan remarked to me that Bester would have loved to have had access to modern desktop publishing while writing The Demolished Man and Stars. Maybe it's as well that he didn't, since when he finally gained complete control over the graphics in a novel the result was the truly dire Golem100. Nor was I terrifically impressed when in his The Deceivers (which in many incidental details reads like a sort of diluted self-plagiarism, of Stars) we are introduced to a computer display seven centuries hence which can do no better than crude typewriter-patterns of asterisks. But with DTP now universal and Stars reportedly out of print in the USA, I urge one of sf's endemic small presses to think about a memorial edition with a good text (correcting the almost universal 'planets' for 'plants' in the introduction as noted by Arthur Haupt, and the place where Bester typed the silly 'Inert Lead Isomer' for what should be 'Isotope' ... but that takes us towards the murky realms of Bester's science, about which all too much can be said: see Damon Knight's balanced early review in In Search of Wonder). Modern typesetting and graphics software would surely see to it that INDIGO UNDULATED WITH SHUDDERING SPEED more sickeningly and effectively than ever before.

Meanwhile, the British text has further oddities. As well as changing the now legendary 'Vorga, I kill you filthy' to 'Vorga, I kill you deadly', the Sidgwick & Jackson editor modified 'Help, you goddamn gods' in Foyle's very first speech to 'Help, you Heels.' A few pages later, 'lousy gods' and 'sweet prayer-men' become 'Heels' and 'sweet Heels'. As might be expected, people seem to prefer the version they were raised on and can debate at length whether straight blasphemy is more or less effective than the alternative of British Understatement.

Our UK editor also thoughtfully changed 'twenty-fifth century' to 'twenty-fourth century' throughout, while leaving the prologue's one actual date ('the 2420s') untouched. There is a mysterious cut in the publicity interview on jaunting, omitting a paragraph of great interest to inmates of Gouffre Martel ... I suppose the editor didn't want to publish information that might help the criminal classes. Was it respect for religion that led to Bester's correct 'Skoptsy' (or Skoptsi) being disguised as 'Sklotsky'? Worst of all, the crucial repetition of the 'Gully Foyle is my name' jingle near the very end of the book is lost in Britain -- jettisoned along with the disposable info-dump sentence that reminds us who the Scientific People are. But I've always rather liked the circular hall of the Scientific People with (at least in the Penguin edition) its 'doomed roof'.

On the other hand, compare: 'Of all brutes in the world he was least valuable alive and most likely to live.' 'Of all brutes in the world he was among the least valuable alive and most likely to survive.' With its unshaded hyperbole and incantatory rhythm, the first is surely more Foyleish, more Besterish. Yet it's the second, slightly limping sentence that appears in the generally preferable US text. Moreover, nearly all the motion-as-sound synaethesia effects are longer in Tiger: Bester evidently added bits for the British edition [or, more plausibly, the text was cut for the magazine serialization, which US book editions then followed]. 'MANTERGEISTMANN!' shouts the movement of the flames ... and in Tiger (only) continues with 'UNVERTRACKINSTEIGN GANZELFURSTINLASTENBRUGG!' Likewise the surf cries 'LOGGERMIST CROTEHAVEN JALL. LOOGERMISK MOTESLAVEN DOOL' (not a bad sound-picture of its motion), while US editions carry only the first two nonsense words. At the end of Foyle's famous speech, after 'I give you the stars.', Tiger has the closing line 'I make you men!': Stars omits this and merely adds 'He disappeared.' -- which is not in Tiger. Help! These are deep waters, Watson, and nobody thought to ask Alfred Bester until it was too late.

(My fervent thanks to Rob Hansen, Chris 'Bester was a meretricious hack!' Priest and especially Dave Wood for helping me with variant editions of Stars/Tiger!)

Indeed there is a thesis of awesome scope to be written on the sufferings of sf novels as they flit to and fro across the Atlantic. What is the fifth paragraph of A.E.van Vogt's Slan? My Panther edition (following a 1953 UK hardback) has a fifth paragraph of info-dump, beginning 'It was new and exciting' ... not present in the Doubleday hardback, which on the other hand has several passages omitted by Panther. Travelling the opposite way, there was the infamous case of Eric Frank Russell's Dreadful Sanctuary, which in one US edition (1963, I think) acquired -- against the entire narrative trend of this wisecracking action-adventure -- an unhappy ending. Research continues.

The final stop on my current mission of pedantry was to check out the latest British edition of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight from Transworld/Corgi, which since 1970 has delighted me with a specially unfortunate one-letter misprint. (Er, I assume it's a misprint, with B typed instead of H.) A testimony to the rigid quality control of publishers, it's still there in 1992. The great moment comes when heroine Lessa has mysteriously vanished upon her vast, telepathic, teleporting dragon steed, and the hero gets worried about this, whereupon his own dragon telepathically scans the entire world of Pern for the missing pair and reports (possibly to howls of agreement from wicked readers who'd found Lessa's terminal wilfulness and the dragon's terminal cuteness a mite hard to take): I cannot bear them.

Blackout....


Footnote

The first piece originally appeared in Frontier Crossings, the Conspiracy '87 (World SF Convention) souvenir book, 1987 -- which had invited short-short essays on a vague "Breakthroughs" theme. Alfred Bester was to have been a guest of honour, but that (alas) was the year of his final illness.

"The Editor My Destination" originally appeared in Doug Fratz's Quantum 43/44, 1993. I was delighted to find that by then, that splendid duo Alex and Phyllis Eisenstein were already planning a collated edition of The Stars My Destination -- to include the best of the differently misedited US and UK versions. This, first published as a 1996 Vintage/Random House trade paperback, is now the standard text on both sides of the Atlantic ... although it still wasn't possible to trace the typography/artwork for Foyle's "burning star-bubbles". There are secrets of the Universe with which we were not meant to meddle....