The Flowered Thundermug

By: Alfred Bester

INTRODUCTION


Alfred “Alfie” Bester (1913-1987) was an American science fiction author, TV and radio scriptwriter, magazine editor, and scripter for comic strips and comic books. Though successful in all these fields, he is best remembered for his work as a science fiction author. He won the first Hugo Award in 1953 for his novel The Demolished Man.

Bester was born in Manhattan, New York City, on December 18, 1913. His father James owned a shoe store, and was a first-generation American whose parents were both Austrian. Alfred’s mother, Belle, was born in Russia and spoke Yiddish as her first language before coming to America as a youth. Alfred was James and Belle’s second and final child, and only son. (Their first child, Rita, was born in 1908.)

Bester attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a member of the Philomathean Society. He went on to Columbia Law School, but tired of it and dropped out. Bester and Rolly Goulko married in 1936. Rolly Bester had a successful career as a Broadway, radio, and television actress before changing careers to become an advertising executive during the 1960s. The Besters remained married for 48 years until her death on January 12, 1984. Bester was very nearly a lifelong New Yorker, although he lived in Europe for a little over a year in the mid-1950s and moved to Pennsylvania with Rolly in the early 1980s. Once settled there, they lived on Geigel Hill Road in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.

After his university career, 25-year-old Alfred Bester was working in public relations when he turned to writing science fiction. Bester’s first published short story, “The Broken Axiom,” was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories (April 1939) after winning an amateur story competition. Reputedly, this competition was arranged by editors who knew Bester and were favorably inclined toward his early work as a way of giving him a break into the field. This contest, incidentally, was also the same amateur story contest that Robert A. Heinlein famously opted not to enter — the prize was only $50, and Heinlein realized that he could do better by selling his 7,000-word unpublished story to Astounding Science Fiction for a penny a word, or $70. Bester and Heinlein later became friends and joked about the incident.

For the next few years, Bester continued to publish short fiction, most notably in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. In 1942, two of his science fiction editors got work at DC Comics, and invited Bester to contribute to various DC titles. Consequently, Bester left the field of short story writing and began working for DC Comics as a writer on Superman, Green Lantern, and other titles. It is popularly believed that Bester wrote the version of the Green Lantern Oath that begins “In brightest day, In blackest night.”

Bester was also the writer for Lee Falk’s comic strips The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician while their creator served in World War II. It is widely speculated how much influence Bester had on these comics. One theory claims that Bester was responsible for giving the Phantom his surname, “Walker”.

After four years in the comics industry, in 1946 Bester turned his attention to radio scripts, after wife Rolly (a busy radio actress) told him that the show Nick Carter, Master Detective was looking for story submissions. Over the next few years, Bester wrote for Nick Carter, as well as The Shadow, Charlie Chan, Nero Wolfe, and other shows. He later wrote for The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

With the advent of American network television in 1948, Bester also began writing for television, although most of these projects were lesser-known.

In early 1950, after eight years away from the field, Bester resumed writing science fiction short stories. However, after an initial return to Astounding with the story “The Devil’s Invention” (aka “Oddy and Id”), he stopped writing for the magazine in mid-1950 when editor John Campbell became preoccupied with L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, the forerunner to Scientology. Bester then turned to Galaxy Science Fiction, where he found in H. L. Gold another exceptional editor as well as a good friend.

In his first period of writing science fiction (1939–1942), Bester had been establishing a reputation as a short story writer in science fiction circles with stories such as “Adam and No Eve”. However, Bester gained his greatest renown for the work he wrote and published in the 1950s, including the novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger!).

The Demolished Man, recipient of the first Hugo Award, is a police procedural that takes place in a future world in which telepathy is relatively common. Bester creates a harshly capitalistic, hierarchical and competitive social world that exists without deceit: a society where the right person with some skill (or money) and curiosity can access your memories, secrets, fears and past misdeeds more swiftly and with greater alacrity than even you.

Originally published in three parts in Galaxy, beginning in January 1952, The Demolished Man appeared in book form in 1953. It was dedicated to Gold, who made a number of suggestions during its writing. Originally, Bester wanted the title to be Demolition!, but Gold talked him out of it.

Bester’s 1953 novel Who He? concerned a TV game show host who wakes up after an alcoholic blackout and discovers that someone is out to destroy his life. A contemporary novel with no science-fiction elements, it did not receive wide attention. It did, however, earn Bester a fair amount of money from the sale of the paperback reprint rights (the book appeared in paperback as The Rat Race). As well, Bester received a substantial sum of money from a movie studio for the film option to the book. Purportedly, Jackie Gleason was interested in starring as the game show host; however no movie was ever made of Who He? Still, the payout from the film option was large enough that Alfred and Rolly Bester decided they could afford to travel to Europe for the next few years. They lived mainly in Italy and England during this period.

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