Golem 100; or, Adventures in Reader Reaction

I’m way behind in writing up the reviews I want to do and reading my regular list of blogs.

However, I want to call attention to some good stuff I have had a chance to read.

So, you’re going to get a series of Adventures in Reader Reactions.

First up is a blogger I came across the other day, Misha Burnett, and his review of an Alfred Bester novel.

Bester is an author I’ll be returning to at some point since I’ve read all his solo science fiction works and made notes on most of it.

Back when I first started reading science fiction regularly, I went through the library’s Best SF series edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss. “The Four-Hour Fugue”, Bester’s story expanded into this novel, appeared in Best SF: 1974.

Raw Feed (1990): Golem 100, Alfred Bester, 1980.Golem 100

In some ways, this is Bester’s most ambitious novel, and I liked it better the second time around.

In the notes of his Starlight collection, Bester explains he uses typography to make reading an experience beyond mere reading of words — a sensory experience of sight and sound.  The cartoons in this novel seem more integrated into the text, more comprehensible the second time around. But while the technique is ambitious and beyond anything Bester has ever tried, the story is in the same Freudian vein as much of Bester’s work. Here a dillettantish dabbling in black magic brings a creature from the idworld to the world of the future (more monsters from the id!). There is Bester’s usual wit, here more sparkling than ever. I particularly liked the jabs at comic book writing in the where Gretchen Nunn confronts sexually all sorts of quasi super heroes.

This book is quite risque and funny in its use of sex. Interestingly, Bester, in the notes of his Starlight collection, says he feels uncomfortable in writing such nearly pornographic things. The smelly world of the Corridor is vintage, baroque decadence in Bester’s typical style (though the world doesn’t seem quite as dangerous as we’re led to believe).

The characters — a homosexual, clever, erudite Indian policeman; a black female troubleshooter;  and a brilliant perfumer — are rather fun. The psychomancer Salem Burne is fun, a combination witch doctor and psychologist.

Bester throws in satire on polluting industries and art trends (1930s communist cells as a decorating motiff) and a surprisingly gory storyline.

Yet, the book is ultimately unsuccessful. I think things go astray two chapters from the end of the book, right after Indiri Subadar enters the idworld and declares the Golem vanished, unable to find a human host. After that, Gretchen Nunn becomes possessed and imitates the behavior of a candidate queen. Bester has a character explain she’s going back to an old pattern of nature as she kills her competitors in the Hive, mates with every male in sight, and kills lover Blaiseshima in a particularly gruesome way — she rips his penis off. Then we find that Subadar is now the incarnation of Golem. We also hear Nunn say that men are to be used but never anything else. We have also seen Nunn has freakish psi talents (a Bester trademark) which mark her as the next stage in evolution. At novel’s end, Nunn seems to imply the Golem was unleashed because of man’s oppression of woman’s true, unconscious nature. Or Bester may be, in Subadar’s possession, likening the dictates of evolution to blind possession by the id.

The novel, to me, seems confused as to whether it wants to be a feminist work or Bester’s usual monsters from the id, or, perhaps more appropriately, monsters from sociobiological imperatives. The last chapter, with its nearly incomprehensible future argot, implies some vast changes have been worked on the human race, but we don’t know what. It’s beyond me and quite annoying.

As a novel, this is Bester’s most ambitious and biggest failure. I think part of the book’s problem lies in Bester’s confessed need to end his novels in a grand finale (as explained, again, in the notes for Starlight). Chopping this book’s last three chapters would have helped it.


More fantastic fiction reviews are indexed by title and author/editor.

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