(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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