Spiders’ Storybook Scrutinies
My rating : 4.5 of 5 stars
I was never aware of Alfred Bester beyond knowing the name in passing, being a fan of science fiction for so long – but eventually I decided to try out this book with a plot most intriguing.
Our primary character/protagonist and the antagonist are in my view, a debatable pair here. But that might be confusing to follow so let me get to the story itself first.
Our narrative is set in a technologically advanced future with elements of the familiar – handled like only the best science fiction
writers can, making the surreal and familiar blend together and bleed into each other in such a way that one doesn’t have to think too hard to understand what something is or means without a long-winded justification or explanation. This is something that I find (unfortunately) is lacking in most modern science fiction and especially in the live-action versions of this (films/tv) where the need to treat the audience like children with no capacity to make that leap in thought and imagination.
In this future, the human race is (a) spread out over several stellar bodies in our solar systems, both planets and moons, and (b) is now split into two evolutionary branches : the normal humans as we are today and those with telepathic abilities. The super/meta-human abilities are limited to telepathy only, i.e., the ability to read minds and converse non-verbally. The extent to which a telepath or “esper” as they are referred to can utilise these abilities is a way of grading them, different levels are more proficient and powerful – while some can only glean bits and pieces involuntarily or skim surface thoughts, higher levels can carry on conversations telepathically and verbally at the same time and others still can at will invade a mind and more. As the level goes up, the number of people corresponding to those levels is lesser and lesser.
Our primary story concerns Ben Reich, the head of one of the two biggest corporations in the entire solar system, who has reached a kind of breaking point in his life and has elected to kill the head of his rival corporation who is slowly chipping away at his empire. The only problem is that thanks to the prevalence of various levels of telepaths all over human society – they are an integrated part of our society here, another thing I loved about the story – it is virtually impossible to get away with such a thing and there has not been a murder in near a century.
The other major player in all this is Prefect Powell, the 1st level telepath policeman who is assigned to solve this case and is one of the most respected policemen and telepaths. He and Reich make for a great dynamic as the game of cat and mouse plays out with each one trying to stay/get one step ahead of the other and creating a sharp, fast-paced and roller-coaster kind of adventure here.
Here is where my conundrum regarding protagonist and antagonist comes up – both Powell and Reich for me are at once playing the hero of the story, but simultaneously are also the foil to the other as the hero. I’m sure people are clearer on this than myself, but the way the roles here blurred in my view, coupled with the flow and choices made by the author over the course of the story leading to the final conclusion… well it is a fine example of the “Grey” aspect of things – neither black nor white, like life itself, hard to quantify.
There are flaws in the book, of this there is no doubt. While a seminal work that once read you can clearly see influenced writers of that era and a great many since, writers such as the legendary Philip K. Dick who’s “Minority Report” bears a similar premise of a crime-free society thanks to people who can see a crime before it happens, albeit in a significantly different way to Besters’ story.
Additionally, there are things that do stand out like the way the few female characters are shown and characterised – I don’t look at that in a very negative light however, because this was a book written at a time when gender roles and attitudes to the same were a world apart and as such we just need to accept that for what it was and not take it to heart and hold it against an otherwise great book. Bester also has a bit of a tendency to be all over the place in terms of concepts, perhaps taking the thing I liked, i.e., the abundance of interesting concepts and creating too many. By that I mean simply that he does at point create a lot of loose ends in terms of things (such as the enormous “reservation” in one chapter) that pop unexpectedly into the unfolding events, are explained somewhat, used and then discarded – never to be seen again. Perhaps he could have done a better job in making some of this a tad less jarring, but this will likely only be an annoyance to those less familiar or inclined to the more concept heavy sci-fi which is prone to almost excessive flights of imagination with little explanation, leaving the rest to the reader.
Written in the tradition of the finest pulp and noir stories with suitable injections of action and intrigue – not to mention great creative concepts and a break-neck narrative that caught me so strongly that I started and finished this book in a matter of hours – this is unquestionable one of the finest science fiction stories I’ve read and has set Bester as a permanent name on my list of the landmark writers. Considering he wrote this in 1953, I am doubly impressed by some of the things he has done here, not the least of which is the creative, confusing but ultimately fascinating way he has played around with showing types of telepathic communication in his story – including text sprawled across pages in a warped patterns and flows, depending on the situation.
A masterful work and truly deserving of it’s cover blurb as the first book to win a Hugo Award.