Science Fiction Studies

#64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994

Fiona Kelleghan

Hell's My Destination: Imprisonment in the Works of Alfred Bester

Hell's My Destination was one of Alfred Bester's working titles for what became The Stars My Destination.1 Though probably rejected as uncheery from a marketing point of view, thematically it speaks to the lot of many of his characters. Hell in its traditional sense—a hot carcerative place bound spatially, as prisons must be, but infinite in time—struck Bester as an image useful enough for him to allude to it repeatedly in his fiction. An early story, "Hell is Forever" (1942), explores six variations on the theme, all brooded over by an antique demon. "5,271,009" (1953) features a relation of Satan and an artist who sojourns a while in Dante's Inferno. Bester may figure the psyche itself as a hell. When telepathic detective Lincoln Powell explores traumatically age-regressed Barbara D'Courtney's subconscious in The Demolished Man, he finds a "deep-seated furnace" (§11:108), a "pit" featuring flames and lightning bolts (§11:109). At the comic end of the spectrum, in "Will You Wait?" (1959), a pact-with-the-Devil tale of the Fredric Brown type, bureaucracy has become more infernal than Beelzebub.

This particular sort of hell is only a specialized form of the prisons that litter the Besterian landscape. His settings are closed worlds—factories, business offices, scientific laboratories, computer laboratories, rocket ships, hospitals, psychiatric institutions, penal colonies, star chambers, bomb shelters and other hidden rooms within labyrinthine houses, pubs, and other dens of iniquity—and this emphasis on enclosed space contributes to a claustrophobic paranoia in his characters that compels violent outbreak. A majority of Bester's stories are concerned with the themes of captivity and release, and a great many of his characters spend time in prisons or psychiatric wards. This does not make Bester the Dickens of science fiction. His reliance on such related themes as darkness and the threat of madness reveals his interest in prisons as the site of psychological catalysis, and he dramatizes the psychology of escape and the results of release, which may be epiphanic or disastrous.

Willis E. McNelly (286), Linda K. Lewis (50), and others have remarked that Bester deals frequently with the themes of justice and retribution, themes for which penitential or punitive spaces are appropriate settings. Yet as Mary Ann Frese Witt, author of Existential Prisons, observes, "Instrument of punishment and suffering, the prison is also an instrument of liberation" (7). Bester "emphasizes transformation through crisis, evolution through catastrophe" (Godshalk 30-31).2 His characters are usually outsiders or misfits, sometimes rogues or criminals, who may define a new role for themselves in regard to their society. The lucky ones emerge from darkness into a self-illumination that provides a guiding light for others.

Bester demonstrates that his use of confining spaces is metaphorical in his depiction of the mind itself as a space of imprisonment.3 Bester's characters travel widely, but their important journeys are interior and inward. Few of his people are explorers of space. Though critics have not discussed Bester's emphasis on prisons, they describe his works with associated images: darkness, burial, isolation, precarious sanity. Jane Hipolito observes that "The Stars My Destination opens where The Demolished Man closes; centered on an embryonic mentality, the hero is alone and virtually inarticulate in the blackness of his undeveloped psyche" (5:2171)—for Bester, the womb is another form of prison. McNelly comments on the underground prison of Gouffre Martel in Destination that "Bester transforms the Monte Cristo myth into a symbolic escape from the underground of unconsciousness to the surface of consciousness" (287). In such parallels, the subconscious sounds like a beast in a dungeon. In stories such as "The Four-Hour Fugue" (1974; expanded in 1980 into Golem100), "Oddy and Id" (1950), and "Time is the Traitor" (1953), the id is portrayed as a creature with magical powers greater than the conscious ego's desire to control it. When the prisoner escapes, the results are disastrous.

Bester describes the mind in spatial terms: psychology is mapped topographically. The subconscious is literally down and inside, trapped inside the conscious mind and seeking ways up and out. Bester's metaphysics of depth is concerned with the origins of pathological fixations but also with issues of supremacy and subjection: the id and ego strive for mastery, each trying to imprison the other.

The id often wins in Bester's stories, imprisoning the conscious mind with obsessions.4 Characters may be tormented by flashbacks,5 or compelled to repeat the same actions over and over, as is John Strapp—whose name suggests both punishment and restraint—in "Time is the Traitor." In Demolished, Ben Reich's subconscious drives him to kill the father who abandoned him but also punishes him for it, taking the form in his dreams and hallucinations of a Man With No Face. His experience of being under ceaseless observation by the Man With No Face suggests Jeremy Bentham's designs for a prison he called the Panopticon, where the prisoners are under constant surveillance from a single point of command.6 The Panopticon is designed to keep "the keeper concealed from the observation of the prisoners, unless he thinks fit to show himself: hence, on their part, the sentiment of an invisible omnipresence" (Bentham 194); this is also the horror of the Man With No Face. Reich's sickness—the trauma of being both directed and under attack by his own id—runs so deep that Demolition is required, a process in which "a series of osmotic injections begins with the topmost strata of cortical synapses and slowly works down" (§17:174) to the subconscious, eliminating the obsessions that drove him to murder.

Gully Foyle of The Stars My Destination, Bester's most famously obsessed man, is barely a personality at all until his id "awakens" with a revenge fixation. In this Monte-Cristo-among-the-stars story of a series of entrapments, escapes, and re-entrapments, he is both jailer and prisoner, punisher and punished. Gully becomes single-minded in his pursuit of the Vorga after being abandoned in space by its crew—on the orders of Olivia Presteign, herself turned murderess from too long obsessing on her "blindness"—and does not find freedom until he renounces his obsession for revenge. The relationship between obsession and self-imprisonment receives a twist in "Fondly Fahrenheit" (1954), the story of a murderer dependent on but psychically possessing his android servant, which at one point defends its erratic behavior with the statement, "There are no self-check relays incorporated in the android brain" (49). This is cybernetically a bizarre state of affairs no matter which reading one chooses of the word "check." Only by anthropomorphizing the android can we make any sense of the statement: The Besterian id has nothing to check it but the ego, which too often fails at its jailer's job.

That the subconscious is somehow imprisoned within the mind is implied by Bester's repeated use of the image of keys, an image metonymically associated with prison cells. The term might be considered a dead metaphor—as when Powell declares that witness Barbara D'Courtney is "the key" to cracking the case of her father's murder (§6:62)—but it is a trope used by Bester in significant moments.

The image of keys has long been noted in the case of Gully's imprisoned potential. His Merchant Marines record comments:

The stereotype Common Man. Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him but Psych cannot find the key. Not recommended for promotion. Has reached a dead end.

Bester's narrator continues:

He had reached a dead end. He had been content to drift from moment to moment of existence for thirty years like some heavily armored creature... but now he was adrift in space for one hundred and seventy days, and the key to his awakening was in the lock. Presently it would turn and open the door to holocaust. (§1:12)

These concrete and vivid images suggest that the thing in Gully which will awaken is large and fiery, which fits the fire images consistently attached to him. The key image provides a dynamic alternative—an escape route—to the images of immobility and enclosure suggested by "armor" and "dead end."

In the story "5,271,009," the reality beyond the locked door of the subconscious is the realm of regression and madness. Solon Aquila is a sort of fallen angel—he bitterly calls himself "a remittance man," adding the dimension of banishment to the theme of imprisonment—who learns that his favorite artist, Jeffrey Halsyon, has gone insane and been locked away. Aquila uses magic to break Halsyon out of his padded cell and learns that Halsyon went mad after seeing Aquila's face in an "unguarded" moment (39). Aquila tells him, "My carelessness was the key that unlocked the door. But you fell into a chasm of your own making" (18). The "chasm" image again locates the subconscious downward, the "key" here a sort of push-button to an elevator to hell.

In "Disappearing Act," the key again unlocks the powers of the mind. America is "locked in bitter combat" (104) in "the War for the American Dream," "for Culture, for Poetry, for the Only Things Worth Preserving" (103). The appositely named General Carpenter has shaped the population into an army of "hardened and sharpened experts." The General War Hospital is divided into various wards, of which Ward T is a mystery because the patients are locked in. Various experts are called in to solve the puzzle and learn that the patients actually teleport out of the room. Naturally, the General wants to learn how to control this ability.

The situation is complicated by the fact that these men and women of Ward T are non compos. They may or may not know how they do what they do, but in any case they're incapable of communicating with the experts who could reduce this miracle to method. It's for us to find the key. (115-16)

In this case, the use of the word "key" is ironic: the prosaic Carpenter behaves as though there is a mechanical solution to the problem of finding the information "locked up" in the patients' heads. It is a historian, retrieved from a prison sentence over which he is justifiably sour—"you're fighting to preserve [people like] me.... And what do you do with me? Put me in jail" (116) —who explains that the patients have discovered how to use an amazing new mental power: they create new worlds from their fantasies and escape ours to live there. While Bester presents the mind as compartmentalized, with areas behind locked doors, to which keys if used would reveal awful and astonishing powers, it turns out that the only people who could learn the secret are poets, and there are no poets left. The hardened experts threw away the key.

That all of us suffer from mental imprisonment—from doors locked against finding these powers—is implicit in Demolished, in which Powell's final speech employs a vocabulary of "barriers" and "veils" which immure us all in solitude:

Listen, normals! You must learn what it is. You must learn how it is. You must tear the barriers down. You must tear the veils away. We [espers] see the truth you cannot see.... That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. (§17:175)

The mind subject to self-imprisonment may reveal its condition somatically. Gully undergoes torture to remove the tattoos that reveal him to all as Public Enemy Number One, but learns that they have not permanently gone. Jisbella's revelation that they reappear when his passions are roused occurs during Gully's rediscovery of his "coffin above the Nomad" (§7:97), implying a thematic relation between the two events confirmed some paragraphs later: the hidden tattoos, like cell bars, will become a form of self-imprisonment both present and absent. In fact, Bester relates the word "iron," connected metonymically with prison bars, to the tattoos. Jisbella warns Gully, "You'll have to hold yourself with an iron grip" (§7:99). He learns to do so: "He took a deep breath and drew calm about him like an iron cloak. The tattooing disappeared from his face" (§9:131). Otherwise: "The unexpected shock of the explosion and the vivid chain of associations had wrenched loose his iron control. The blood-red scars of tattooing showed under his skin" (§14.199). For Gully, the "chains" of associations recalling his past captivity are as crippling as literal chains. Sudden shock may at any time plunge him into horrific memories of imprisonment (§4:52-53, §8:119, §13:184).

Gully's hunter and imprisoner, Saul Dagenham, whose scarred face suggests an affinity between them, carries around his own invisible prison—radioactivity. This condition, inexplicably lethal to other people but not to him, denies him human contact for more than five minutes per day (§4:49), and allows him to kiss his lover only through "three inches of lead glass" (§12: 168). Dagenham is a paradoxical prisoner of the sort that appears in so many of the short stories: he is weary from constant mobility rather than immurement; busy in society, he is still isolated from it; no criminal, he will never be free of his self-imposed imprisonment.

As many of his characters suffer such self-imposed confinement,7 Bester's settings are correspondingly imprisoning and claustrophobic. As Peter Nicholls notes, his landscapes "are the external correlatives of the states of mind that are his central concern" (5:2165). When we first meet Gully Foyle, "the stereotype Common Man," Bester evokes great sympathy for the intolerable conditions Gully has suffered; he has endured 171 days in a tool locker

four feet wide, four feet deep and nine feet high. It was the size of a giant's coffin. Six hundred years before, it had been judged the most exquisite Oriental torture to imprison a man in a cage that size for a few weeks. (§1:13)

Even more recently, prisoners were thrown into a cruel little room in the Tower of London known as the "Little Ease." This room, 4' by 4' by 9', had little air, less light, and no chance of comfort, as the prisoner could not stretch out or lie down. Guy Fawkes, a rebel almost as incendiary as Gully Foyle, is said to have been among its captives (Carkeet-James 107). In this box inside the airless Nomad, Gully's precious possessions are "a faceless clock which he kept wound just to listen to the ticking, a lug wrench with a hand-shaped handle which he would hold in lonely moments, an egg slicer upon whose wires he would pluck primitive tunes" (§1:17)—objects suggestive of the meaninglessness of time in durance and of cell bars.

Like Gully, Ben Reich is associated with enclosed spaces. Not only does he feel that his rival D'Courtney has him with "his back to the wall" (§1:9, §12:116), but in Reich's scenes we always find some reference to the surrounding walls. On the opening page, awakening from a nightmare of the Man With No Face, Reich looks wildly around the room at its "walls of green jade, the nightlight..." (§1:1). Again, Bester takes pains to describe the garish and decadent walls of the murder room in Maria Beaumont's house as "curling orchid petals" (§5:45), tainting the atmosphere of sickness and blood-lust with grotesque hints of sexuality. In Chooka Frood's frab house, looking down through the glass floor of "a small round room, walled and ceilinged in midnight velvet" (§9:87), Reich has an opportunity to kill Barbara and Powell with impunity, yet stands inexplicably paralyzed. This bizarrely black, cellular boudoir symbolizes his lack of freedom to execute his own will; his subconscious, rather miraculously recognizing Barbara as his young half-sister, restrains his hand. Even in the outdoor hunting Reserve of Spaceland, it is within the "invisible walls" (§12:121) of a futuristic tent that he tries to kill a potential informant. From Reich's own business offices to the "cells" of Chooka's house (§9:81) to the police station he visits during the Mass Cathexis, the spaces he inhabits are "labyrinthine" and confusing, like the chambers of his own mind.

It is ironic, then, that Reich attempts to ensure his own liberty by imprisoning everyone else:

"By God, give me time I'll complete a picture with the galaxy inside a frame!"

"And I'll own you!" he shouted, raising his arms to engulf the universe. "I'll own you all! Bodies, passions, and souls!"

Then his eye caught the tall, ominous, familiar figure crossing the square, watching him covertly ... looking, looming, silent, horrible... A Man With No Face. (§15:144)

While Reich walks free—"Notice I said free. Not innocent" as Powell says (§14:138)—he will remain the captive of the Man With No Face. Realizing that he cannot prove Reich's guilt in a court of law, Powell decides to entrap him with a psychic form of police brutality. He employs the Mass Cathexis to impose on Reich a solipsistic nightmare in which the whole universe seems to constrict down to the size of Reich's own body.8 The Cathexis illusion begins with Reich's looking out a window—a device symbolic of the possibility of passing to the outside—but he sees no stars, a sign that extrinsic space is diminishing. As the noose tightens around him, as he watches the moon, then the sun, then the planet evaporate away, his world grows "darker...eternally darker" (§16:164), and the solipsistic fantasies of his vanity collapse into grief and the terror of eternal loneliness. When nothing remains but Reich and his accuser—his own subconscious—he submits to Demolition: to the hospital-prison.

Perhaps in no other way does Bester come so close to an Absurdist description of man as a prisoner in an insane asylum as when he uses his fiction to censure the systematized dehumanization created by modern hospitals. The point is worth dwelling on because hospitals and psychiatric institutions occur so frequently in his works, and always as carcerative spaces. As early as 1941, Bester was opening his short story "Slaves of the Life Ray" with a man-turned-mutant escaping from a hospital. In "The Die-Hard" (1958), an old man must live in a hospital because he is the last human in a cyborg society. Even when the character is not a criminal, his difference from others is often enough to lock him away. Bester's hospitals are thinly disguised prisons.

When kidnapped by Presteign for his assault on the Vorga, Gully is imprisoned and subjected to "an inquisition" (§4:51) in the Psychiatry Wing of a giant hospital. Dagenham tortures Gully with the "Nightmare Theater," a series of nightmares that culminates in encagement in a dungeon:

They buried Foyle alive, slowly, inexorably, hideously. He was carried down into black depths and enclosed in stinking slime that cut off light and air. He slowly suffocated while a distant voice boomed "WHERE IS 'NOMAD'?..." (§4:52)

When Nightmare Theater fails, Dagenham condemns him to a horrible prison:

what is laughingly known as medical treatment. We don't punish criminals in our enlightened age, we cure ‘em; and the cure is worse than punishment. They'll stash you in a black hole in one of the cave hospitals. You'll be kept in permanent darkness and solitary confinement so you can't jaunte out. They'll go through the motions of giving you shots and therapy, but you'll be rotting in the dark. You'll stay there and rot until you decide to talk. (§4:59)

This is crueler even than Demolition, which eventually renews and releases the criminal. Gully is sent to Gouffre Martel, "the most formidable cavern hospital on Terra" (§5:60), whose procedures resemble those of the prison as much as those of the hospital. Bester's itemizations of the paper uniforms, the regular mealtimes, the disinfectants, the inoculations, the periods of occupational therapy, the TV screens in each cell, the torture of loneliness and monotony, are a bitter condemnation of modern hospital techniques.

Bester perverts the proper curative role of hospitals with elements of the grotesque. The operating rooms where Gully's tattoos are removed lie above a "zoo" known as the Freak Factory, where medical science is used to create monstrosities (§6:79-82). Later Gully visits the hospital of Sergei Orel, ex-crew member of the Vorga and medical fraud, and finds a den where doctors administer diseases to the patients and where an electric chair waits in the consultation room (§10:135). Even Robin Wednesbury, the sweetest character in Destination, finds herself for a while "in protective confinement in Mercy Hospital near the Iron Mountain Proving Grounds" (§8:115) after a suicide attempt—sick to death of being "suspected, watched, reported" by those around her (§8:117). These clinics are demoralizing and literally dehumanizing.

Kingston Hospital of Demolished is a far cry from the "black hospital depths" (§5:60) of Destination, a spa of such pleasures that all the "fashionable malingerers" attempt to be admitted (§17:171). But Kingston is a gilded cage; its name from the beginning links it with Reich's: by cognation he is doomed to end there. Even Powell, who commits Reich, condemns the system; when Commissioner Crabbe says, "It must be a wonderful thing to be an Esper," Powell replies, "Would you be happy to live your life in a hospital, Commissioner? That's where we live.... All of us. In the psychiatric ward. Without escape... without refuge" (§17:170-71). Powell explicitly makes that environment sound like an especially nightmarish form of prison. Beside whatever personal reasons Bester had to dislike hospitals, they serve as a concrete reminder that the worst prisons are mental, and that the system as it stands contributes less to therapy than to dehumanization.

Prisoners who escape cell or infirmary discover that the world outside is equally harsh and limiting. The world of Destination features a Lunar labor camp for unfortunates who are unable to jaunte and so become the "dregs and scum of the Solar System" (§12:168). Even creepier are the cells of the monastic Skoptsys, catacombs of "rough stone slabs" and "permanent midnight" (§13:180), another closed collective space. The members are surgically isolated from their own bodily sensations and, like Beckett's Unnamable, trapped until death in the seclusion of their minds, where they are "all worms in their heads" (§13:181). In Demolished, Destination, The Computer Connection, Golem100, and The Deceivers, society is made up of islands of the decadent rich surrounded by ghettoes, houses of vice and illusion, penal colonies, and the underworld. Here to be human is to dwell within a concentric series of prisons, to internalize this topography until one becomes one's own jailer, and to build more prisons.

If we keep looking "up" and "out," eventually it appears that the universe itself is a vast prison. Bester suggests, however, that we can defeat even this ultimate barrier if driven to it. Charles Fort Jaunte, a character whose name suggests the Charles Fort who investigated paranormal phenomena, was the first to find that under the threat of death—when trapped in a tank or burning room—he could teleport out to save his life (§0:3-4). Gully's great achievement of jaunting further through space than anyone before and, more, through Time, into his own past and future, emerges when he is "trapped within the labyrinth of the inferno under Old St. Pat's [and] trapped in the kaleidoscope of his own cross-senses" (§15:213). The horror and agony of the burning slag heap twist his senses into synaesthesia, forcing him to "break through" into a whole new experience of the world. His time-jaunting is "driven by the miracle of a human mind no longer inhibited by concepts of the impossible" (§15: 213). As Patrick McCarthy observes of Gully's final speech to liberate mankind, "Foyle's sermon aptly concludes with his promise of man's dominance over the universe in which he has so long found himself a prisoner" (65). Further, when releasing his mind from "concepts of the impossible," he rather magically frees himself from the laws of physics which constrain us all. This liberty leads ultimately to spiritual freedom. After that sermon, which culminates in his jaunting throughout the galaxy, Gully is "drawn to the womb of his birth...the womb of the locker" (§16:234), as Bester calls it: the Little Ease aboard the Nomad. Joseph and Moira, who find him, remember the harm he has done them and speak of punishing him, but Joseph realizes, "He has found it already in himself" (§16:235). In his tiny prison, Gully's demeanor, which turns Joseph's anger to wonder, is apparently that of a penitent or pilgrim; he has found release from his self-torture.

The astonishing variety of methods by which Gully escapes from his various prisons testifies to his dynamism, resourcefulness and brawn, but it is always in confinement that he discovers the awesome powers of his subconscious. Similarly, the patients of "Disappearing Act," the Molecular Men whose agonized deaths galvanize them into resurrection in The Computer Connection, and the Bee-Women who raise a monster from their ids in Golem100 all discover superhuman abilities in rebelling against their confining circumstances.

As though the images of imprisonment were not enough, Bester uses a number of stylistic techniques to reinforce the theme. His flamboyant use of graphics and typography shows that he found the format of ordinary typescript too limiting and tried to break out of the confines of the page itself. The typographic jokes of Demolished, the helical and starry phrases in Destination, the musical scores, Rorschach blots, and mutating illustrations of Golem100 draw attention to and form a revolt against the conventional blocks of text.

Bester also uses repetition and prolepsis to increase the sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia. Damon Knight complained that Bester's use of repetition is deceptive—that the repeated phrases "mean something new each time" (234). This is true perhaps in "Disappearing Act," in which the phrase "hardened and sharpened tools," referring to the robotic people of this new wartime era, grows increasingly ironic, as "honourable men" does in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Jeff Riggenbach, meanwhile, sees the repetitions as having two effects:

One is to induce a sort of déjà vu in the reader; the exact repetition of an entire sentence or descriptive phrase produces that creepy feeling that something is happening for a second time, particularly when the phrase is used at forty to eighty page intervals and only in moments of tension. The other effect of Bester's repetition is the creation of a highly dramatic volatile mood. In combination with the fast pace of his narrative, this mood suggests stylistically what his handling of plot, theme, and symbol establish ideologically—the view of human existence in terms of passion, compulsion, and savagery. (173)

Unfortunately, Riggenbach does not discuss why Bester might wish to induce déjà vu. Worse, his assertion that déjà vu facilitates the fast pacing of the narrative is not supported by his examples, nor does it make much sense. Bester uses repetition rather to demonstrate just how imprisoned his characters are. Let's look at Riggenbach's own examples.

In Demolished, the repetition of the description of Barbara ("yellow hair flying, dark eyes wide in alarm.... A lightning flash of wild beauty" [§5:47, §9:88, §14:136]) emphasizes how trapped she is in her state of catatonic "Hysterical Recall." Bester even explains how we are to view this repetition:

Conceive of a camera with a lens distorted into wild astigmatism so that it can only photograph the same picture over and over—the scene that twisted it into shock. Conceive of a bit of recording crystal, traumatically warped so that it can only reproduce the same fragment of music over and over, the one terrifying phrase it cannot forget.

"She's in a state of Hysterical Recall," Dr. Jeems of Kingston Hospital explained.... "She responds to the key word 'help' and relives one terrifying experience...." (§10:89)

Riggenbach also notes the echoes of the physical descriptions of Reich and Aquila, but these are not "creepy"; rather they are melancholy indictments of two men who "suffer from baby fantasies from which [they] cannot escape" ("5,271,009" 39) and which physiognomically reveal themselves. Meanwhile, Reich's repeated humming of the "Tenser said the Tensor" song to block prying Espers does increase tension, but by emphasizing how he must imprison his guilty thoughts while in public. Riggenbach overlooks the recurrence of descriptions of The Man With No Face. The repetitions of "looking," "looming," "silent," "staring," and "horrible" portray the Man as motionless yet omnipresent, an inescapable jailer, and dramatically convey Reich's paranoia as he flails for a way to escape. In "Fondly Fahrenheit," the parallelism of the phrases "92.9N gloriously Fahrenheit" (48), "98.1N beautifully Fahrenheit" (53), "100.9N murderously Fahrenheit" (55), "1200N wondrously Fahrenheit" (64) and "10N fondly Fahrenheit" (65), each concluding a section of the story, are placed like barricades in Vandaleur's zigzag flight, blocking routes of escape from his eventual downfall. The final paragraph, which in small parallels the opening scene of his pursuers closing in, implies an ever-tightening restriction on Vandaleur's freedom. Such uses of repetition do more than emphasize the theme of imprisonment; they highlight the borderline between reality and mental illness. Characters who repeat themselves are either in prison or mad, or both.

Bester further uses prolepsis and premature revelation to limit his characters' freedom. He had discovered this technique early, as the title of his 1940 novelette "Voyage to Nowhere" alerts us. Here the three main characters, doomed to execution for their crimes, escape prison. Unfortunately, each by accident meets his death during their journey in the manner prescribed by their planetary governments. A heavy mood of predetermination hovers around the story after the first fugitive's death, but in time Bester learned to achieve this result with a subtler and more ironic touch.

In Demolished, his story opens with a strangely deflating perspective:

In the endless universe there is nothing new, nothing different. What may appear exceptional to the minute mind of man may be inevitable to the infinite Eye of God. This strange second in a life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity, and encounter...all may be reproduced over and over on the planet of a sun whose galaxy revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already.

There are and have been worlds and cultures without end, each nursing the proud illusion that it is unique in space and time. There have been men without number suffering from the same megalomania; men who imagined themselves unique, irreplaceable, irreproducible. There will be more...more plus infinity. This is the story of such a time and such a man.... (6)

Even before introducing Reich, Bester has predestined him to be just one more of these "men without number" who will fail and be forgotten. The proleptic title itself tells us that Reich will be demolished. In this way, before turning to the first chapter, the reader has been told twice how the story will end. Yet for a while Reich seems to have a good chance of getting away with his murder and thwarting Powell, who knows Reich did it and who tells him:

"This is the beginning of the end, for you. You know it. Why don't you make it easier for yourself?"

For an instant, Reich wavered on the verge of surrender. Then he mustered himself to meet the attack. "And give up the best fight of my life? No. Never in a million years, Linc. We're going to slug this out straight down to the finish."

It was the beginning of Demolition. (§6:63-64)

Having built the suspense for six chapters, the narrator steps in to flatten it by revealing that Reich will be caught. Three chapters later, when Reich has an opportunity to kill Barbara and Powell, he restrains himself, and the narrator seals his fate again: "He was halfway to Demolition" (§9:88). Bester's premature revelations severely curtail the extent of freedom Reich thinks he has. The close of the novel repeats almost word for word the introductory phrases, calling attention to the limited freedom of the characters—they are bound to reproduce the events already enacted countless times by others—yet extending the drama into eternity, as into hell.

"Oddy and Id," apparently the story of a nice young man who loves people, saves the world, and becomes the ruler of the Solar System, is actually no such story at all, as we are warned by the opening line: "This is the story of a monster" (244). The prodromal repetitions—

No one realized he was a monster ... yet. (245)

He was completely uninhibited in his quiet, relaxed way. He had charm. He was happy. So far, his monstrous evil had only affected the little Town Unit where he was born and raised. (245)

And so it went ... worse and worse. The monster. (247)

—seem comic rather than ominous while the reader wonders what could be monstrous about such a charming, unusually lucky youth. The key phrase is "completely uninhibited," for this is in actuality the story of his id, "that deep, unconscious reservoir of primordial selfishness" (258) which, in Oddy's case, has preternatural powers to achieve everything it wants. We see his professors working to educate and civilize Oddy, to prevent their coming doom, but the narrator's intrusions ensure their failure. In the end, Oddy becomes "the feudal overlord of a bankrupt Family of Planets that suffers misgovernment, oppression, poverty, and confusion with a cheerful joy that sings nothing but Hosannahs to the glory of Oddy Gaul" (257). The ultimate enslavement of the human race is determined from the beginning by the very nature of Oddy's id, which even he cannot control.

Another monster and another horrific ending confront the victim of "Star Light, Star Bright," which begins: "The man in the car was thirty-eight years old.... He was inspired by a purpose. He was armed with a phone book. He was doomed" (277). The victim, Marion Perkin Warbeck—he takes his name from a 15th-century pretender to the English throne who was incarcerated in the Tower of London9—seems at first smart and lucky rather than doomed in his discovery, in ten-year-old Stuart Buchanan's "My Vacation" essay, of the existence of several children with astonishing mental powers which could make him very wealthy if he can only locate them. But the reader realizes from the first of thirteen repetitions of the proleptic phrase "the doomed man" that Warbeck's hunt, bringing him closer and closer to Stuart, must somehow be fatal. Stuart's genius, it tums out, is for wishing, and when he wishes on a star that "anybody who tries to bother me would go away...a long way away...and leave me alone forever" (292), Warbeck meets his doom in eternal imprisonment on

a straight white road cleaving infinitely through blackness.... Down that road Warbeck plodded on, an astonished automaton, unable to speak, unable to stop, unable to think in the timeless infinity.... Ahead of him he saw the minute specks of figures trapped on that one-way road to forever. (292-293)

Bester repeatedly foreshadows the ending in ways more or less subtle. Opening paragraphs commonly parallel the last. In "Time is the Traitor," the narrator begins, "You can't go back and you can't catch up. Happy endings are always bittersweet" (220), foreshadowing that the quest will be unsuccessful and the ending in fact bittersweet. "Hobson's Choice" begins bluntly, "This is a warning..." (261). The drinking of Amontillado wine in the opening of "Hell is Forever" refers us to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," the famous tale of a man walled up alive, and prepares us for a series of scenes in which six characters are, we might say, "worlded up" in their own private universes of eternal torment. In each case, the characters are doomed by the rhetoric of the narrator from the start.

Bester uses images of confinement in complex ways. To an extent he criticizes prisons from a social and political standpoint, as a symptom of an unenlightened society more concerned with institutions of restraint and order than with curing the violent and the sick. But he is primarily interested in how the deprivation of physical liberty can lead to spiritual freedom. Gully Foyle personifies this transformation. As McCarthy has shown, Gully is a Christ figure (64-65), and Christ, as Thomas More reminded us, was a prisoner for the liberation of humanity (Witt 6).

Bester cherishes the prison as a metaphor for the mind, which must find its own freedoms. Specifically, Bester is fascinated with how the trauma of imprisonment drives human beings to discover the unknown resources within. This fascination is manifest in his vocabulary of walls, doors, keys, traps, and escape; and he frequently returns his freedom fighters to sites of trauma, the small places that compel individuals to become great.

In the most general terms, the metaphor stands as a warning against self-imprisonment by inertia and lack of ambition. It is a familiar existentialist symbol of the limitations and tyrannies of modem life, and meshes with the appearance of computers and robots in his stories, representations of servitude and dehumanization. Gully growls at one point, "We prattle about free will, but we're nothing but response...mechanical reaction in prescribed grooves" (§16:224). Bester puts such words into his mouth to incite the reader to rebellion. He told Charles Platt, "I'm a great believer in people, and their untapped potential. It's obvious we can't all be a Gully Foyle, but most of us energize at such a low level, so far short of our real capabilities, we could all be more, do more. Today, in America, I think everyone needs a good kick in the ass, to get them doing things" (212). His fiction awakens us to the "closed in" quality of our lives and preaches activism. If we learn to recognize and resist the forces of confinement, Bester believed, we may learn how to reach for the stars.


1. See Damon Knight, either "The Stars My Destination" [book review] in Infinity Science Fiction 2:106, Oct 1957, or In Search of Wonder. Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago: Advent, 1967), 234. Unfortunately, Knight does not give the source of his information.

2. The narrator of The Computer Connection says that the "psychogalvanic shock" that transformed the protagonists into supermen is "a sort of updating of Cuvier's 'Catastrophism' theory of evolution. In case you've forgotten, he argued that periodic catastrophes destroyed all life and God started it all over again on a higher level. He was wrong about the God bit, of course, but catastrophes do alter creatures" (7).

3. There is of course a tradition behind Bester's depiction of the mind as a prison. In John Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan observes, "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n" (§I.254-255) and later, unhappily, "Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell" (§IV.75). Milton might in turn have been thinking of Mephistopheles's reply to Faustus' question ("How comes it then that thou art out of Hell?") in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it" (§I.iii.74-75).

4. Others who have remarked that Bester often uses obsession to drive his plots include Hipolito (2170), Lewis (54), Riggenbach (168), and Wendell (16-17). Many of Bester's short stories preach that obsessions turn destructive and lethal. "Adam and No Eve" (1941) portrays a scientist so determined to launch his rocket ship that he destroys all life. "Hobson's Choice" concerns a man who fantasizes obsessively about other eras and is therefore forever exiled from his own. "Time is the Traitor" and "The Man Who Murdered Mohammed" (1958), one tragic and the other comic, are stories of unsuccessful revenge on behalf of lost love. "The Four-Hour Fugue" (1974), expanded into Golem100, features a man who is driven to hunt down those with a death-wish and satisfy it. The vocabulary of possession and loss of freedom in these stories present the id as Other and jailer.

5. Foyle, Reich, and Krane of "Adam and No Eve" are haunted by flashbacks, which Bester called "a device I despise" ("My Affair with Science Fiction" 68), to moments of crisis. What Nicholls calls many Bester characters' "obsessive need to relive the past" (5:2165) reminds us that the experience of time inside prison, the presence of the past that led there and the meaninglessness of futurity, is much like the memory's own experience of time: selective and distorted. Flashbacks will cause a paralysis, a temporary imprisonment by the past, but may galvanize the character again into action. Tim Blackmore notes that, in Bester's stories, nostalgia is dangerous (111).

6. Descriptions of Bentham's Panopticon are available in nearly every history of prisons; see, for example, Michael Ignatieff's A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 109-113.

7. Interestingly, Bester dedicated Demolished to Horace L. Gold, the editor who persuaded him, over the phone, to write it; Gold was "trapped in his apartment" by "complete agoraphobia" (Bester, "My Affair" 400).

8. J.G. Ballard used the idea of confined men experiencing a shrinking universe in his short story "Manhole 69," published in 1957. Ballard is another writer whose works frequently feature confining spaces.

9. See, for example, Plantagenet Somerset Fry's The Tower of London: Cauldron of Britain's Past (London: Quiller, 1990), 79-81.


Ballard, J.G. "Manhole 69" (1957). The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1978. 21-42.

Beckett, Samuel. The Unnamable. NY: Grove Press, 1958. Translated by the author from L'Innomable (Paris: Editions de Minuit, cl953).

Bentham, Jeremy. "Panopticon Papers." A Bentham Reader. Ed. Mary Peter Mack. NY: Pegasus, 1969. 189-208.

Bester, Alfred. "Adam and No Eve." Starlight, q.v. 205-18.

—————. The Computer Connection. NY: Berkley, 1975.

—————. The Deceivers. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1981.

—————. The Demolished Man. 1953. NY: New American Library, 1954.

—————. "The Die-Hard." Starburst. NY: New American Library, 1958. 148-52.

—————. "Disappearing Act." Starlight, q.v. 102-20.

—————. "5,271,009." Starlight, q.v. 5-40.

—————. "Fondly Fahrenheit." Starlight, q.v. 45-65.

—————. "The Four-Hour Fugue." Starlight, q.v. 69-87.

—————. Golem100. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

—————. "Hell is Forever." Starlight, q.v. 121-99.

—————. "Hobson's Choice." Starlight, q.v. 260-75.

—————. "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed." Starlight, q.v. 88-101.

—————. "My Affair With Science Fiction." Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers. Ed. Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison. NY: Harper & Row, 1975. 46-75.

—————. "Oddy and Id." Starlight, q.v. 242-59.

—————. "Slaves of the Life Ray" in Thrilling Wonder Stories 19:62-77, Feb 1941.

—————. "Star Light, Star Bright." Starlight, q.v. 266-93.

—————. Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester. NY: Nelson Doubleday, [1976].

—————. The Stars My Destination. 1956. NY: Berkley, 1976.

—————. "Time is the Traitor." Starlight, q.v. 219-41.

—————. "Voyage to Nowhere." Thrilling Wonder Stories 17:12-30, July 1940.

Blackmore, Tim. "The Bester/Chaykin Connection: An Examination of Substance Assisted by Style." Extrapolation 31:101-24, Summer 1990.

Carkeet-James, E. H. Her Majesty's Tower of London. London: Staples Press, 1953.

Godshalk, William L. "Alfred Bester." Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers. Ed. David Cowart and Thomas L. Wymer. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981. 30-36.

Hipolito, Jane. "The Stars My Destination." Magill, q.v. 5:2168-2172.

Knight, Damon. In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction. Rev ed. Chicago: Advent, 1967.

Lewis, Linda K. "Bester, Alfred." Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Science Fiction. Ed. Marilyn P. Fletcher and James L. Thorson. Chicago: ALA, 1989. 49-54.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus: A- and B-Texts (1604, 1616). Ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

McCarthy, Patrick A. "Science Fiction as Creative Revisionism: The Example of Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination." SFS 10: 58-69, #29, March 1983.

Magill, Frank, ed. Survey of Science Fiction Literature. 5 vols. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1979.

McNelly, Willis E. "Alfred Bester." Science Fiction Writers. Ed. E.F. Bleiler. NY: Scribners, 1982. 283-90.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. NY: W.W. Norton, 1975.

Nicholls, Peter. "Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester" Magill, q.v. 5:2163-2167.

Platt, Charles. "Attack-Escape." New Worlds Quarterly 4:210-220, 1972.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Cask of Amontillado." The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. NY: Modern Library, 1965. 274-279.

Riggenbach, Jeff. "Science Fiction as Will and Idea: The World of Alfred Bester." Riverside Quarterly 5:168-177, Aug 1972.

Wendell, Carolyn. Alfred Bester. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1982.

Witt, Mary Ann Frese. Existential Prisons: Captivity in Mid-Twentieth-Century French Literature. Durham: Duke UP, 1985.


Much of Alfred Bester's fiction is concerned with the themes of imprisonment and release. His settings frequently are closed spaces such as prisons, hospitals, rocket ships and laboratories. His rhetorical devices include a vocabulary of keys, walls, doors, and traps, and his use of techniques such as repetition and prolepsis contributes to an air of predetermination that hangs over most of his work. Bester is interested in the prison as the site of psychological catalysis. Those characters who undergo imprisonment may wind up with disastrous psychic damage or, conversely, may find spiritual enlightenment. In Bester's most famous stories, the characters who emerge from the darkness of imprisonment into self-illumination may grow to lead others in their society to seek their own freedom. (FK)

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