I’m going to admit something right up front: I am not, and never have been, a big fan of the short story format. I’ve always believed that if an idea is really worth exploring, it should be worth exploring at the level of a novel (or novella at least); a short story just isn’t enough space for much in the way of idea development, at least the development of serious ideas. Science fiction short stories far too often come across as merely cute or whimsical, and that’s usually not what I’m interested in. However, every now and then I feel the urge to try a volume of stories just to see if it can change my mind on the matter; so far that hasn’t happened to any large extent. Short stories I really like are few and far between. Such is the case with this volume of Bester stories, Virtual Unrealities, published in 1997; I found myself liking only a small percentage of what’s offered here.
As if the format’s tendency toward whimsy wasn’t enough, things get even stranger when you take into account Bester’s erratic and fanciful writing style. In the introduction to this volume, Robert Silverberg (who picked which stories to include) describes that style as “magnificent cockeyed pizazz,” and he quotes an even better description from Damon Knight:
Dazzlement and enchantment are Bester’s methods. His stories never stand still a moment; they’re forever tilting into motion, veering, doubling back, firing off rockets to distract you. [….] Bester’s science is all wrong, his characters are not characters but funny hats; but you never notice; he fires off a smoke-bomb, climbs a ladder, leaps from a trapeze, plays three bars of “God Save the King,” swallows a sword and dives into three inches of water. Good heavens, what more do you want?
There was a bit of that frenetic style in Bester’s great novel, The Stars My Destination, but there it had enough room to spread out and avoid overwhelming the reader, and seemed more like a bit of exotic seasoning. In many of these stories, however, Bester’s hyper-extravagant manner is concentrated into such a small space that it becomes almost unbearable to a reader like me, who values a logical story structure and a high degree of believability in plot and character.
I’m not going to critique each and every story, simply because there are too many and I don’t really feel like it. Out of sixteen stories there were only five that I liked to some degree: “Fondly Fahrenheit,” about a malfunctioning robot that commits crimes and whose owner skips from planet to planet to avoid the authorities; “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed,” a humorous yet intriguing time travel story; “The Pi Man,” about a man with a sort of cosmic-level case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; “Will You Wait?”, about a man who experiences endless bureaucratic red tape while trying to sell his soul to the devil; and “Adam and No Eve,” a sad post-apocalypse tale about a man who destroyed the world through his arrogance.
The rest were either uninteresting and mediocre, or downright bad, either because of content or style, or a combination of both. Still, five out of sixteen is better than some authors do for me, so I can give Bester at least some credit for getting my interest. As for the subject matter of the remaining stories, some of them involve time travel; some are twisted love stories; some are about people with superpowers and what those powers do to them. “Disappearing Act” is based on something very similar to the “jaunting” ability from The Stars My Destination, and some of the freaky medical and/or genetic engineering aspects of that novel are echoed here in “Galatea Galante.” And finally, to be honest, a few of these stories are just so damn strange I don’t really know, or care, what they’re supposed to be about.
As usual, your mileage may vary, and if you really like short stories you might get more out of this volume than I did. As for me, I think I’m gonna stick to novels for the near future; I’ve had enough stories to last a while.