Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester

The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester
Published : Berkley/Putnam, 1975
Awards Nominated : Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF Awards

The Book :

”There is a Group of eccentric immortals, who have all come into being after a shocking near-death experience.  Some of them are actual historical celebrities, but others simply take on names that best describe their interests. Guig’s name comes from the “Grand Guignol”, and he earned it through his obsession with recruiting new immortals.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to orchestrate an experience of horrific near-death followed by a miraculous save, so all his attempts have ended in failure.  Mostly, he just kills people in terrible ways—but with the best of intentions.

Guig has his sights set on a new recruit, a genius Cherokee scientist named Sequoya Guess.  The conversion marks Guig’s first success, but then something unexpected happens.  Guess has mysteriously formed a connection with a supercomputer known as the Extro.  Guess may want to further his research and make life better for humankind, but the Extro has more homicidal intentions.  Guig and his Group must face the terrible truth—if Guess can’t control the Extro, they may have to kill a man they think of as a brother.” ~Allie

This is my September novel for the Grand Master’s ReadingChallenge.  I picked this novel because I am generally a fan of Alfred Bester.  He is a skilled wordsmith, and everything he writes seems to be brimming with energy and enthusiasm.  While The Computer Connection was as ridiculous and energetic as usual, I don’t think it is one of his best novels.  For any newcomers to Bester’s work, I would recommend starting with some of his more well-known novels, such as The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination.

My Thoughts

In the introduction to my edition of The Computer Connection, Harlan Ellison states that this novel is Alfred Bester’s take on a Hollywood screwball comedy.  I can see that idea at the heart of this novel, with its over-the-top characters and absurd situations.  The madcap energy that Bester seems to put into everything that he writes also works well to propel the story from one ridiculous event to the next.  The descriptions of communities and characters were all exaggerated and over-the-top, which fit well with the tone of the story. All the members of the Group had developed their niche—Nemo with his sea creatures, Herb Wells with his ‘time dingbat’, Borgia with her medicine, M’bantu with his wildlife, Sam Pepys with his historical records, and so on.  Their specializations influenced all of their interactions and made them easy to distinguish.

However, the exaggeration of these characters and their communities led to some wildly stereotypical portrayals of marginalized cultures.  On the up side, many of the main characters were non-white, and most of them were portrayed in a positive light.  For instance, Dr. Sequoya Guess was a world-famous Cherokee scientist, his sister Natoma was highly intelligent and assertive, and Fee-5 (a girl described as partially Maori) was also quite a marvel.  On the downside, the depiction of several cultures, most notably the Cherokee, was about as accurate and sensitive as Looney Tunes.  For instance, Dr. Guess lives in a teepee guarded by wolves, and Natoma is introduced through an accidental marriage (though the trope is somewhat subverted in the details). Guig also regularly calls Dr. Guess by nicknames like ‘Sitting Bull’, ‘Montezuma’, ‘Chief’, and so forth, though at least one character does explicitly call him out on this behavior.  In addition to this, Guig uses some slurs throughout the story (most notably one that is still often used against homosexuals), though he appears to do so without malice.  I think that these portrayals and inappropriate terms are meant to be seen as silly, but I can see how they could easily ruin the novel for many people. 

The story of The Computer Connection is fast-paced and entertaining, but not always entirely coherent. The science featured in the story doesn’t even try to be especially realistic, so one just has to accept the existence of ‘molecular men’, the bizarre results of Dr. Guess’s experiments, and more.  Quite a lot happens in the pages, and some of it seems a little unnecessary.  For instance, Fee-5 is a very interesting adolescent girl, but she ends up underutilized in the story.  Also, there is at least one plot twist late in the story that doesn’t seem relevant to much of anything.  It is foreshadowed, but it has no real connection to the plot or the characters.  Overall, it was a short, fun book, but the plot construction left something to be desired.

Regardless of the content of the story, however, I appreciated Bester’s use of language.  He used it here to build a vernacular for his future residents, and to add to add to the chaotic forward momentum of the story. In the anarchic land of future ‘Mexifornia’, most people speak a language composed of mangled English coupled with mangled Spanish, which somehow manages to be intelligible. In the Group, however, most people speak XX (20th Century English, I assume) which is peppered with easily decodable slang and shortening of words.  Bester’s slang felt very organic to me, particularly in this era of txtspk (Y/N?).  The language in The Computer Connection wasn’t quite as fun as, for example, the telepathic word pictures of The Demolished Man, but I always enjoy Bester’s creativity in his methods of communication and uses of words.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Computer Connection is recognizably Alfred Bester’s style, but I don’t think it’s one of his best books.  His skill with language and his unstoppable energy shines through the pages, but the story does not reach the level of mastery that I remember from “The Demolished Man” or “The Stars My Destination”. The Computer Connection has been described as Bester’s take on a screwball comedy, and it is definitely full of over-the-top characters and absurd situations.  However, I was troubled by the stereotype-driven portrayals of various non-white cultures, particularly the Cherokee.  It was interesting to read a novel written later in Bester’s career, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a first taste of his work.

P.S. The cover I displayed in the 'upcoming reviews' was pretty terrible, so I found an older version to display here.

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