Saturday, 21 November 2015

Review: Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester

Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester Virtual Unrealities: The Short Fiction of Alfred Bester by Alfred Bester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bester is a name I knew, and I'm sure I'd read some of his stories in multi-author collections, but I didn't have a clear mental picture of what his writing was like. I'm glad I picked up this collection, since it has some excellent stories in it.

The first few ring the changes on the idea that a lot of the stereotyped plots of the pulp magazines were adolescent wish-fulfilment, and real people would encounter a very different experience if time travel, or several other common tropes, actually came to pass. This depth, wit and vividness continues throughout the collection.

One of the supposed "rules" of strong writing is that the verb "to be" is weak and should be replaced wherever possible. But consider this:

"The man in the car was thirty-eight years old. He was tall, slender, and not strong. His cropped hair was prematurely grey. He was afflicted with an education and a sense of humor. He was inspired by a purpose. He was armed with a phone book. He was doomed."

"Weak" verbs. Tell instead of show. But it grabs you and sweeps you into the story anyway, because Bester knows how to pick the details that say, at the same time, "this is Everyman" and "this is a particular man who will be interesting to read about", and those two things together make for a great main character.

Indeed, it's the characters - simultaneously easy for the reader to relate to, and eccentric and particular - who make these stories memorable. Bester characterises them briskly, but vividly, like a caricaturist producing portraits with just a few strokes of the pen. Then he sweeps them into drastic situations and watches them dance and struggle and weep.

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