Alfred Bester’s writing process

Excerpted from Jad Smith‘s book Alfred Bester, the latest volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.

After Boucher accepted “Fondly Fahrenheit,” Bester revealed his particular investment in the story, saying: “My heart really was in that experiment”; and later in his career, he selected it for Harry Harrison’s Author’s Choice anthology series, including an unusually detailed account of his writing process.

smith besterThe story originated when he recorded the Twain anecdote in his commonplace book alongside a note to extrapolate the situation into an android-slave society. Though he thought about this entry occasionally, it remained there for “years” before he once again gave it “serious attention,” outlining several scenes unsuccessfully and then leaving the matter to stew in his “unconscious.” Several months later he looked back over his notes and realized that the android was the equivalent of a murderous robot. He had not considered what would cause it to circumvent its conditioning, and he pulled a note from elsewhere in his commonplace book concerning spikes in the crime rate during heat waves. He went back and changed the settings to match the “temperature gimmick” but felt that the story still lacked suspense and put it aside again until “much later.” Though Bester does not mention as much in his account, he probably started thinking about the story idea again in September 1953. A lighthearted note preceding his outline of “5,271,009” reads:

Since I suffer from synesthesia . . . and am deluded into believing that I am a jellied eel whenever the temperature rises above 78°, I have not been able to think until our heat spell broke. Now the temperature is 73°, and in that range I suffer from the delusion that I am a writer.

When he later came across a quote about projection transcribed from one of Horney’s books, the pieces finally clicked together: the climax would reveal the master as the criminal. He dropped his other projects and sat down at the typewriter, realizing in the process that this framework would allow him to attempt “multiple point of view,” a technique he had “been toying with for years.” By his account, the story was already written. After years of synthesizing ideas and sporadic bouts of outlining, he “typed it” in two days.

Bester rarely remembered the specifics of his writing process in such detail, especially with regard to short stories, and that fact makes his account of “Fondly Fahrenheit” all the more valuable. It deepens the picture of him as a bricoleur who gathered together “odds and ends” and crafted them into unlikely and, for that very reason, unique creations.

His practice of keeping a commonplace book factored into his artistic process, perhaps even more heavily than self-pastiche. From 1941 on, as he moved through and straddled mediums, he recorded any oddment of knowledge that he thought might “produce or contribute to a story,” always with the goal of allowing ideas to mix and marry in his mind over time. The short sections of his commonplace book edited and published by Eric Solstein demonstrate both Bester’s wide-ranging interests and the persistent influence of the Renaissance ideal on his outlook. The various entries span criminology, psychology, parapsychology, chemistry, film, medicine, literature, the history of coinage, popular lore, and much, much more. Bester’s self-concept as a writer centered on the impulse to collect and merge ideas. At various points in his career, he described himself as a “professional magpie,” a “packrat,” and even a “cesspool” in which nothing went “to waste.”