Why did Alfred Bester write “5,271,009?” Is it merely a wild story, or does Bester have something to say? To rant? Sometimes, when I read old science fiction stories I wonder if science fiction writers weren’t satirizing science fiction and if that’s the case with “5,271,009.”
In the March 1954 issue of F&SF the editors give us a hint with their introduction:
Now, I’m not sure if Boucher and McComas aren’t misleading us, or misreading Bester’s story. I’ve never considered science fiction “pap for paranoids,” or that it’s read by people seeking stories that will free them from their responsibilities. “5,271,009” is one wild ride that begs to be explained.
The editors think the story is Bester’s reply to the critics of science fiction fans. I wonder if Bester isn’t criticizing science fiction too. That it’s a hyperkinetic parody of science fiction. I absolutely crave to hear this story read by a narrator that could do it justice, but the only readers I can imagine reading this story as Bester wrote it are dead. I picture either Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters reading it in their most manic moods.
Alfred Bester was only a part-time science fiction writer. He was also a magazine editor, scriptwriter for radio and television, and scripted comic books. In his introduction below, you can tell Bester has a real life. The over-the-top plot of “5,271,009” reminds me of comic books more than it does science fiction. In the 1950s science fiction was considered crapola-lit for geeky adolescent males, but comic books had even a worse reputation, fit only for the subliterate. Science fiction claimed to teach some science but it was damn little, but comics had no claim to redemption.
Actually, I wonder in “5,271,009” if Alfred Bester isn’t doing something like William Shanter did in the famous “Get a Life” skit on SNL. In the story, Mr. Solon Aquila is described as being two parts Beelzebub, two of Israfel, one of Monte Cristo, one of Cyrano, and mix violently. I believe Mr. Solon Aquila is Bester, Jeffrey Halsyon is either the science fiction genre, or the stand-in for all science fiction fans, or both. Just to give you a taste of Bester’s prose and the sound of Aquila:
Is Aquila just an over-the-top character, or is he a bit more?
This time when I read “5,271,009” I had an introduction by Bester to give me more clues. This copy is from Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester which reprints a 2-volume collection from 1976.
We learn that “5,271,009” was written on assignment to fictionalize the cover artwork. Bester thought the art was obvious camp, and at first didn’t want to take on the project. He felt the story would have to be mad camp. I’ve been seeing that cover since the 1970s and I’ve never once considered it mad camp. Have you? I love the covers on F&SF, especially the ones from the 1950s. If I had to describe what was happening on the cover, I would say a convict was left to die out in space and given enough air to make it torture. But then, that might be exactly what Bester is making fun of.
Of course, we know what the writer imagines doesn’t have to be what the reader reimagines. The basic setup for “5,271,009” is Jeffrey Halsyon, an artist who has gone insane and has quit painting. Solon Aquila is a collector of Halsyon’s work wants him cured so he’ll return to painting. How that’s achieved is a story that feels like a collaboration by Robert Sheckley, Philip K. Dick, and Douglas Adams. But then, this is 1954, and well before those writers showed us just how far out science fiction could get.
It’s interesting that Solon Aquila takes on the job of curing Jeffrey Halsyon. And doesn’t the name Halsyon sound like halcyon? One definition of halcyon is “Often used to describe an idyllic time in the past that is remembered as better than today.” Another confession, that’s exactly how I look back on old science fiction.
Aquila drugs Halsyon and puts him through a series of hallucinations where Halsyon plays out adolescent fantasies often found in science fiction stories, and the number 5,271,009 shows up again and again in these fantasies. The first is a sex fantasy:
Of course, like stories about three wishes, this fantasy breaks apart when Halsyon is told all the women hate him and consider his duty rape. The next hallucination involves the space adventure pictured on the cover of F&SF. Bester is suggesting that science fiction fans imagine themselves as this kind of hero.
In each fantasy, Judith shows up. She is the fantasy girlfriend of all science fiction fans. After Jeffrey makes his escape he is the vile anti-hero that is blamed for the alien invasion by the Grssh. But at the last minute, Halsyon saves the planet. But that fantasy doesn’t work out either.
His next fantasy is my favorite, one I’ve often entertained in my daydreaming, and the plot of favorite stories. Jeffrey returns to being his 10-year old self but retains his 33-year-old mind.
But damn, this fantasy crashes and burns too. The next fantasy is most unpleasant, where Jeffery is in a time loop, like a bad Groundhog Day. Bester makes allusions to Shakespeare and Dante. Slowly, he’s bringing the story around to a meaningful message.
Next up, is another favorite science fiction fantasy I love to daydream about, being the last man on Earth. By the way, I just read Bester’s story, “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” which uses the same fantasy. In both cases, Bester or Mr. Aquila ruins the fantasy.
Finally, Jeffrey Halsyon escapes the fantasies, or so he thinks and confronts Mr. Aquila.
The answer to that question is 5,271,009. Halsyon is not out of the nightmare yet, he still has millions to go.
The ending is very much like the red pill-blue pill of The Matrix. But the choice isn’t between living in reality or living in fantasy. Instead, it’s much like Hindu or Buddhist philosophy. We evolve through many lives of reincarnation. We can grow faster if we live hard lives. Yeah, it’s that old what doesn’t kill us that makes us stronger.
Now, is this just a neat story that Alfred Bester wrote for Boucher and McComas? Or is it Bester telling science fiction, or science fiction fans, “Get a life!” To be more precise to the story, “Grow up!”
James Wallace Harris, 1/24/22