One Step Beyond And Then A Jump To The Left: Alfred Bester’s Golem 100
Alfred Bester is known and justly praised primarily for two novels; The Demolished Man published in 1953, and The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger, Tiger) published in 1956. Both books helped to influence the course of science fiction, and both have been discussed at great length by more competent analysts than myself. In contrast, Golem 100, published in 1980, is relatively obscure, and as far as I can tell, out of print. There are reasons for this.
First, the structure. In addition to simple text, this book uses a lot of graphics—there’s a section written as a graphic novel, a section written as a screenplay, a section written as a musical score, a section that is a series of Rorschach style ink blots. I suspect that there is at least one typesetter who still flinches at Bester’s name. I suppose that’s the kind of thing that you can get away with if you’re a Grandmaster Of Science Fiction. Personally, I don’t think the graphics add much to the story. Second, there are a few scenes that are out and out torture porn. I have a taste for the grotesque in literature. I’m a splatterpunk fan. Some of my own work contains scenes of excessive violence. So when I say something is over the top, trust me, it’s over the top. Bad things happen to people in this book. Very bad things. Third, there are racial and ethnic issues that are handled in a less than sensitive manner. There is some broad stereotyping, and some dialogue written in a cringe-worthy attempt at dialect.
Given all of the above, why then am I wasting my time (and yours, if you’ve read this far) with it? Not a bad question. Because the parts that do work, work really well. And even the parts that don’t work have a compelling sort of perverse genius to them.
In broad outline, Golem 100 is three interconnected stories. The setting is what would come to be known as cyberpunk—a vast urban landscape rife with the usual sci fi bugaboos, overpopulation, evil corporations, a few glitteringly wealthy surrounded by masses in grinding poverty, pollution, the onset of an ice age (this was written back when global warming was still global cooling), collapsing national governments, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.
In this mess lives Blaise Shima, a chemist working for a perfume company. Blaise is the company’s main asset, primarily because he has a preternaturally acute sense of smell. When he starts acting erratically and losing time, the company hires a freelance troubleshooter to find out what’s going on and put an end to it.
That troubleshooter is Gretchen Nunn, a street savvy tough girl—kind of Sam Spade as played by Pam Grier. Meanwhile, Subdar Ind’dni, police inspector, is dealing with a series of murders that are both horrible and inexplicable. The perpetrator seems to be able to violate the laws of physics. Also meanwhile, a group of bored, wealthy women have come up with a new game to play, something to fill the idle hours of their overprivileged lives. They are going to raise the devil.
What follows is a conceptual fugue on the subject of perception and reality. This explains (if not entirely excuses) the typographic mayhem scattered throughout the book. Bester is playing with the reader’s preconceptions of what a novel is. As I said, I think the results aren’t exactly successful, but they are… interesting.
On the other hand, the story—when it is allowed to be a simple straightforward narrative—moves along at a pretty good clip. There are mysteries here, several of them, and Alfred Bester, perhaps more than any other author, developed the Sci Fi Mystery as a genre. The eponymous Golem that was summoned in lieu of the Devil operates by a twisted, but consistent logic. Blaise’s missing time has a startling explanation. And Gretchen has a strangeness about her that she doesn’t suspect. The bells and whistles of the structure get in the way, but the puzzle pieces are there. Underneath it all, this book is a paranormal detective story, with the three threads woven together in unexpected ways.
In my opinion Golem 100 would have been much better if an editor had said, “Fred, half of this novel is wonderful. Let’s publish that part and shred the rest.”
Is it worth reading the whole thing to get the good half? I think so. There are concepts and images that will stick with you long after you finish the last page. It’s a book that makes you think uncomfortable thoughts. To me, those are the best kinds of books.
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.