The Demolished Man was worth all of Horace Gold’s editorial aggravations. The Demolished Man was fresh, adventurous and beautifully written, and it began a stretch of five years or so during which Alfred Bester was turning out what was arguably some of the best writing in the sf field, right up to his second great novel, The Stars My Destination, sometimes called Tiger! Tiger! in 1956.
But, as far as great sf novels were concerned, that was it. Alfie did produce a group of first-rate short stories and novelettes around that time — “Fondly Fahrenheit,” “5,279,009″ and my own personal favorite, “Disappearing Act,” for example — and he did write more novels later on, but I don’t think anyone has ever argued that they came up to the standards of those first two terrific books. Maybe Alfie really needed Horace’s nagging to make them great.
And, actually, science fiction lost a lot of its interest for Alfie Bester.
Alfie hadn’t stopped being a money writer. He had returned to science fiction because the money had got better — magazine word rates had tripled after World War II, and now the stories were being picked up by book publishers for even more money. And Alfie had just gotten some significant Hollywood money (for a film which, of course, was never made), which gave him and Rolly the chance to live in Europe for a while.
This suggested to him that he try a little nonfiction travel writing for a magazine named Holiday, which he discovered was just as painless to write as anything else, provided you were Alfred Bester. That paid pretty well. In fact, the magazine’s editors liked his writing so much that they offered him an editorial job, at quite a decent salary, and Alfie suddenly had a new home.
That is, for eight or nine years he did, up until the time when the magazine, as magazines do, went bust.
And then, after he and Rolly had been happily married for forty-eight years, Rolly died. And he began to lose his vision. And things, which had been going quite well for Alfie Bester, were beginning to be less idyllic.
For a while I hadn’t seen much of Alfie — not when he had been living in Europe, and not when he was working for Holiday. When I was working as the sf editor for Bantam Books, we did talk about a book that sounded somewhat promising to me, but we never signed a contract. His life had improved somewhat in some respects, though. He was publishing more sf again, and he at last had a new lady friend. (I’ll call her “Jane”— I must admit I have forgotten her name.)
Then World SF had its annual meeting in Dublin, Ireland, and I was there, and so was Alfie.
World SF was an organization started by Brian Aldiss (England), Harry Harrison (Ireland), Sam Lundwall (Sweden) and me (USA). We started it mostly because we wanted to give a break to sf people in the USSR and China and other countries where you weren’t allowed to travel abroad unless your government gave you special permission, which more often than not they refused to do. Visas for that purpose were a bit easier to obtain if you had a written invitation from a professional organization of some sort.
So the four of us founded World SF, with membership available to anyone anywhere in the world who had a professional connection, any kind of a professional connection, with sf. We had some stationery printed up and sent written invitations to anyone who wanted them, and shortly thereafter our annual meetings, all over the world, began to get pretty interesting.
For the one in 1978 I got to Dublin a bit early, and on that first day chose to explore the city on my own for a bit. And there I was, strolling along one of its main streets when I saw Alfie, coming toward me.
“Hello, there,” I said, as soon as he was within hearing range. He didn’t answer. He glanced at me, but he didn’t speak, and he walked right past me.
I was taken aback. Had I done something to offend him? If so, what? I couldn’t think of a thing, and that evening, back in the hotel, I found him in the lobby chatting with some of the other World SF people. He greeted me cheerfully, and so I asked him why he had cut me dead on the Dublin street.
Alfie was all apologies. “I guess I didn’t hear you,” he said. “I certainly didn’t see you, Fred. I guess you don’t know that I’m just about blind now. I can get around for a walk, but I can’t tell one face from another.”
And so that was all right again. We all had a good time at the meeting. Jane was with him, and they both seemed to be happy with the world,
After it was over, both Alfie and I had been invited to give a joint talk in the English city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Betty Anne and I had rented a car and done a little sightseeing and visiting friends already, so we were going to take the ferry across to England, drive to Newcastle and then spend another week or so on more of the same. On the spur of the moment, we invited Jane and Alfie to join us, and on the spur of the moment, they said they’d love to.
The joint talk went quite well (and if you doubt me, I can invite you to read it for yourself because someone came across an ancient tape-recording from that antediluvian event and got it typed up, and I will shortly publish it in the blog).
But on the occasion itself, things were less joyful. Alfie had been sharp and entertaining on the stage of the Tyneside Cinema, but when we were heading back to our rooms he was more silent than usual. In the hotel, he turned down the chance for a nightcap in the lobby bar.
“Better not,” he said. “I’m really tired. I think I’d better get a good night’s sleep, especially since we’re starting out for the Roman wall in the morning.”
That made sense. We took Alfie’s example to heart, but then when we were all at breakfast the next morning, Alfie was looking hollow-eyed and very poorly slept.
Jane sighed. “I’m afraid Alfie isn’t up to it, but we don’t want to hold you two up. So you go ahead—”
But Betty Anne was already shaking her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. We could all use an extra day’s rest, so why don’t we take a day off for loafing and sightseeing and see how things look tomorrow.”
But when tomorrow came, things didn’t look any better. Betty Anne and I left on our trip. Jane and Alfie stayed behind.
And I never saw either of them again.
Alfie lived for another few years, but in worsening health and diminishing sociability. The Science Fiction Writers of America wished to give him their Grand Master Award, but had to arrange to give it to him early, since he wasn’t expected to live until the usual award date.
He did, though. He lived until the end of September 1987, and then he died, apparently alone. His entire estate he left to his bartender, Joe Suder. No one else was mentioned in his will.
Transcript of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation” to commence shortly.