(Uncredited cover for the 1964 edition)
Despite enjoying Alfred Bester’s famous novels The Demolished Man (1952) and The Stars My Destination (1956), I found his short stories in The Dark Side of the Earth (1964) on the whole nowhere near as masterful. Yes, they are witty, comedic, playful, silly, pseudo-intellectual (references to film directors such as De Sica, etc), and on occasion refreshingly experimental in structure (‘The Pi Man’). Of those adjectives, ‘silly’ is the most constant.
Bester is at his best when he blends his satirical/comedic side with a fascinating concept — for example, an inventive theory of time travel in ‘The Man Who Murdered Mohammed’ — or a gritty strain of film noir-esque action adjoined smartly to the sci-fi premise (‘Time is the Traitor”). All too often the intriguing premise becomes mired in a Bester staple, The Greater Melodramatic Morass (TGMM).
Fans of Bester will be frustrated with my assessment. If you adore Bester and haven’t read many of his short stories yet then I recommend you track down a copy. Sadly, I tend to be uninterested in stories where the Devil runs for Congress or the Little Group of Powerful Art Dealers try to track down cabinets/12-speed mixers/ceiling lamps in an Americana obsessed future where secretaries greet their bosses in polka dotted bikinis, etc.
For post-apocalyptical fiction fans, I highly recommend the best story of the collection, ‘They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To.’ Along with ‘The Pi Man’ and the gorgeous cover for the 1964 edition the collection is almost worth procuring.
Short Story Summaries (spoilers)
‘Time is the Traitor ‘ (1953) (24 pages) 3/5 (Average): A man with a super mind is employed by whoever can dish out the cash to make The Decision — whatever decision is needed. He has an 87% accuracy rate, a handsome looking decoy, a brunette and a blonde, and a tendency to murder anyone with the name Kruger. The reason is revealed when a man who makes friends as easily as breathing is employed to be his friend.
‘The Man Who Murdered Mohammed’ (1958) (14 pages) 4/5 (Good): There was a man who mutilated history but discovers that his mutilations make no difference to the timeline. Shoots George Washington, nothing changes. Shoots Muhammed, nothing changes. Unfortunately, his own body gains a rather spectral quality.
‘Out of this World’ (1964) (11 pages) 1/5 (Bad): Man fantasizes about women who call in with the wrong number. A particular women piques his interest enough to call her back. They set up a meeting. But, both miss each other. The phone line is due to be repaired. They try to meet again — and again, miss each other. Oh, crossed phone lines leads to a call to an alternate world… Silly.
‘The Pi Man’ (1959) (18 pages) 4/5 (Good): The Pi Man (the irrational man) is particularly in tune with the patterns of the world. With a delightful avante-garde delivery, ironic air, and inventive abandon, Bester narrates how The Pi Man attempts to create patterns through his irrational actions (speaking in random languages, killing animals, hating the people he loves). Some of the visualized sentences formed in the floor plan of a house, or the outline of a building, etc are imaginative. Worth reading.
‘The Flowering Thundermug’ (1964) (43 pages) 3/5 (Average): In the far future the Little Group of Powerful Art Dealers (members named Greta Garbo, Vittorio De Sica and the like) employ a professor of Americana to track down various stolen furniture items from America’s past. In this future, mid-century relics are worth more than their weight in gold. The first part of the story is downright hilarious — the professor gives a lecture on how he’s reconstructed the 50s life from bits of archaeological finds and gets everything wrong. Quickly loses its way when The Little Group of Powerful Art Dealers enter the story…
‘Will You Wait?’ (1959) (8 pages) 2/5 (Bad): In the modern world a man tries to sell his soul to the devil. And gets enmeshed in bureaucracy while the Devil runs for Congress… Forgettable.
‘They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To’ (1963) (36 pages) 4.75/5 (Very Good): Despite a frustrating strain of 60s sexism, Bester spins a disturbing tale of the last two people on earth (perhaps) who have both ameliorated their trauma in unusual ways. A onetime boxer sets off to find a TV repair man after shooting the last broadcaster on earth. A woman lives along in downtown Manhattan driving around in a jeep procuring the perfect home decor. Here Bester’s witty/comedic style serves to enhance the emotional impact. Highly recommended.
(W. F. Phillipps’ cover for the 1969 edition)
(Bob Pepper’s cover for the 1970 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1977 edition)
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23 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dark Side of the Earth, Alfred Bester (1964)”
I’m going to have to take a look tonight to see if I have this one in my basement collection. I know I have a Bester short story collection, just not sure if it is this one. I too love the cover you picture first. If I don’t already have it I’ll be keeping an eye out for that cover.
I consider myself a fan because of The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. I don’t mind the occasional ‘silly’ sf story, as long as it is well told. It is when the word ‘silly’ also becomes the best descriptor for the way in which the story is written that I begin to feel like I’m being experimented on. I don’t mind a writer playing with form, just not solely for the sake of playing with form.
A friend of mine who is a big Bester fan has been impressed with some of his short fiction so at some point I will have to give some of it a try.
I was impressed with two or three of them. The last story, if it wasn’t so sexist, would be one of my favorites. The male character constantly tells the woman that she doesn’t know much because she’s a woman and she says that women still have some uses… Some of the others are straight out silly — albeit, always witty.
Collections often get a “lowish” overall rating — the editors almost always flesh out the good stories with crappy ones. I’ve rarely found a “very good” collection overall but rather a collection of duds and almost great reads..
I think I’m naturally more tolerant of short stories as I am very fond of them and often find something I like, although occasionally I get burned by a collection. Jeff Vandermeer’s The Third Bear is one of the more recent ones that I thought was overall mostly great, and I’ve been impressed with all four volumes of Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse anthologies. On the classic side pretty much any collection of Cordwainer Smith short stories is a hit for me and Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth is a really nice collection.
Yup, and PKD collections tend to be near perfect… I love VanderMeer — the only post-90s author I still read. I haven’t picked up that collection — and now I won’t!
I’m confused, you won’t?
Oh, wow — oops, I read your comment too quickly — I thought it was the collection that “burned” you. Sorry for the confusion.
Good to hear, if you like Vandermeer you should definitely pick up that collection.
I’ve read Shriek: An Afterword and City of Saints and Madmen. And, I want to find a copy of Finch.
Finch is the only one of his novels I’ve read so far, I have a copy of City of Saints and Madmen here on my desk. Finch was good! Weird, for sure, but very good.
Shriek: An Afterword is the prequel to Finch — City of Saints and Madmen develops the world that the two novels inhabit. Some of the short stories in City contain the same characters (or authors of the book fragments) in Shriek.
That’s sad to hear his stories aren’t as good as his novels.
Then again, those novels were damn good.
A few of them did near the level of his novels. Thankfully…
You’ve whetted my appetite… I’ve a novel of Bester’s waiting on one of the teetering ‘To Be Read’ piles by my bed – it looks like I’ll have to shunt it up nearer the top.
Hmm, I tried not to whet people’s appetites — I was unimpressed besides with the two stories I gave a 4 or higher… The collection as whole is rather average. Unless you love Bester… start with his novels first (which one do you have? Hopefully The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination — his later novels are considered pretty crappy).
“The Stars My Destination”[aka “Tiger,Tiger”] was far greater than “The Demolished Man”.It was incoherent I thought.The only later novel of his I read,was “The Deceivers”,which was dire.
Have you read Fondly Fahrenheit? I don’t know which collection has it. I loved the story. Very jazzy, and surprising.
Fondly Fahrenheit was collected in Starburst, originally published in paperback by Signet Books in 1958. Locus’s poll in 1999 voted the story forth best novelette of all time.
“Will you Wait?” is the only short story I’ve read by Alfred Bester,but don’t recall what it was about.I read it in the hardcover anthology,”Great Tales of Science Fiction and Fantasy”,published by Chandler Press[editor not credited].All were taken from the “Magazine of Science Fiction”,and included excellent stories by Harlan Ellison,J.G.Ballard,Tom Reamy and Thomas Burnet Swann.
The sexism in “They don’t make Life” feels affected, as if the characters are deliberately choosing and accentuating “conventional” gender roles for the novelty of it.
Of course, Bester is kind of a sexist, and the point where Linda’s breasts jiggle “enchantingly” even when she’s the viewpoint jars all to hell.
I was also disappointed when it turned out Jim wasn’t gay. Still, it’s a good story, and given that Bester hadn’t produced much in years, a welcome one.
Thank you for your review!
I doubt a SF short story in the 60s would ever have a gay character…. maybe one coded “gay” very obliquely. I could be wrong! I want to be wrong.
“They also serve” by Evelyn Smith. Not only gay, but their gayness is vital to the success of a first contact mission.
Cool. Still haven’t read any of her work. I have a few of her novels on my shelf.