Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Lesser known brilliant minds of Science Fiction

One of my favourite of the early post-WWII clutch of science fiction writers is Alfred Bester. He played with ideas some of which were just plain bizarre but all of which were entertaining. It's always fun re-reading Bester, which can not always be said of larger names like Isaac Asimov, who wasn't as good a writer, or Frank Herbert, who was gloomier.

He also, although he filled his books with the kind of unthinking sexism that can be identified after a gap of 60 years between writing and reading, delved deeply into the social effects of the ideas he played with, in a way that puts a lot of other writers to shame and which highlights the best of how SF should be speculative and the worst of the shallow crap that gets turned into audio-visual "entertainment" these benighted days.

I am currently re-reading Tiger! Tiger!, aka The Stars My Destination (but you've got to prefer a Blake quote as a title, haven't you?), the central premise of which is the discovery of teleportation as a mental ability and the universal training of individuals in it. He opens with a thumbnail sketch of social and technological background, introduces teleportation and its discovery, and then, in a few short pages, proceeds to set up the social background of the novel by taking a shredder to the Worlds As They Were: Transportation industries and all economies reliant upon them crash; communication industries crash; the outer settled sattelites (Io, Europa and the rest of the usual suspects) fall into social chaos because they had most of their investment in transport and most of their exports going to transport-related industries, go to war with the inner planets (Earth, Moon, Mars, Venus - the other usual suspects) as a result; massive upheaval in privacy-related technologies, including building mazes at the entrances to buildings and personal homes so that people would be unable to get the absolute knowledge of location necessary for teleportation in or out; Ranking of individuals based upon distance they can travel at a time, assessed by the old motor vehicles registration bodies, and the inclusion of this upon employment application forms; social upheaval as criminal gangs use teleportation to strike and retreat; police brutality in retaliation; social and environmental upheaval as slum dwellers disappear into the remaining wilderness and start living on the animals; diseases spreading into old areas for the first time in centuries, and leprosy reappearing when it had been thought eliminated; plant diseases such as the elm borer and citrous scale likewise; und so weiter.

And this was in the 1950s. He discussed citrous scale in a list of important world-change markers! We were hopelessly pantsed by equine influenza, and Bester was casually tossing up three hundred different consequences of failures of border control mechanisms in the fifties.

Bester addressed the world(s) with a thoroughness which is staggering not just because he was doing it in the environment of the 1950s, when we often condescendingly think that media was so much less effective and accessible than it is now, but because it is seen so rarely. He's credited with shaping both New Wave (whatever that is - see end) and cyberpunk (the Sprawl which features in many of his stories is exactly like William Gibson with older technology and at least as many drugs - with water shortages [sound familiar?] the perfume industry takes off and the ability to take a shower becomes a status symbol and... but I get side-tracked) and the completeness with which he builds worlds has to be a major contributing factor to this.

It is mollifying to think that the thoroughness with which he constructed his books is why he wrote so bloody few of them.

Link to Alfred Bester on Fantastic Fiction (he's been dead since 1987, I don't think he's got a home page).
Link to the explanation of the wank that is the term "New Wave". On wikipedia.
Link to cyberpunk. Also on wikipedia.

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