Cannonball Read IV: Golem100 by Alfred Bester
OK, so bear with me here: there's this group of bored housewives in near-future New York, right? And they're bored enough that they've decided to try invoking the Devil through a ritual they've pieced together featuring Latin chants, backwards Hebrew, and the hand of a dead man coated in the fat of a virgin. Or something. Anyway, it doesn't work, only it does work and they summon some force from a parallel universe that goes around killing people in very, very inventive ways, and only a blind Jamaican private investigator, a Vietnamese biochemist with an extraordinarily sensitive sense of smell, and a phlegmatic Indian police captain can stop it.
Trying to summarize Alfred Bester's Golem100 is, probably, pointless, because the book is more of an experience than a story (yes, that's "Golem to the 100th power"). [Apologies that we can't show "100" in superscript here. -- mswas] It has features that should be familiar to readers of his better-known The Stars My Destination, such as fragmented rapid-fire dialog with no indication of who is speaking, illustrated sections demonstrating a character's becoming disjointed from time and space, nigh-incomprehensible gutter dialog, and a disturbing amount of rape. It also takes some getting used to the typographical methods he uses to demonstrate a character's speech patterns without having to actually describe them; it's a bit jarring, but extremely effective, for a character to exclaim something like "You mean those BEAUTIFUL things were actually all !!!handmade!!! by H*A*N*D?" rather than for the author to spend a paragraph describing how dramatically said character is given to speaking. Bester tries very hard to break the reader out of his groove and force her to pay attention to how things are said, which for characterization is often more important than what they're saying.
That's not the only way in which the book can be a difficult read. There are, for example, the aforementioned rape scenes. The book manages to be extremely sexual while staging nearly all of it offscreen, but much of the sex is either violent or deviant or both, and makes one feel rather squidgy. Also, although the book seems very progressive in the diversity of its cast, Bester still succumbs to a good deal of racial and sexual stereotyping; many of the characters are referred to (albeit generally either by unsympathetic characters or self-effacingly) using ethnic slurs, and homosexuals get a rough time in general ("I knew you weren't [a] fag...you're a man!" exclaims one character non-ironically). Sometimes the two are combined, such as the Jewish lesbian who calls herself "Yenta Calienta" and needs to get the best deal possible on everything. On the other hand, it's very difficult to tell when Bester is being ironic and when he isn't; face it, you can't call a character "Yenta Calienta" and take it seriously. And some parts of the book are just laugh-out-loud "WTF" ridiculous, such as when the Jamaican PI goes to the Palestine Liberation Organization and talks her way past the guards in Yiddish, pretending to be an Ethiopian Jew (the PLO, you see, took over narcotics distribution after the collapse of the Italian mob, and since Israel is the only country left that condemns drugs, they now love the Jews). There's also the psychoanalyst who pretends to be a diabolist because the ritual evil lets his patients relax so he can read them better.
Anyway, like I said, trying to summarize the plot is near pointless and it's better to just describe impressions; either you like this sort of read, in which case you'll probably enjoy it, or you don't and you won't. As I mentioned before, it feels in many ways like an expanded version of The Stars My Destination, which is surprisingly short for a work of its influence. This one clocks in at nearly 400 pages, but large sections are devoted to visuals so it actually reads faster than that. Bottom line: if you're a fan of science fiction that puts its energy into pure imagination and balls-out craziness, then this one's worth a shot if you can find it (it is out of print). Otherwise, probably best to give it a miss.
(Header painting copyright Rowena.)
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This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.