Alfred Bester had a long and interesting writing career, first in science fiction, then comics, then radio. In the 1950s he wrote two classic award-winning novels, “The Demolished Man” and “The Stars My Destination.” In the 1960s he became an editor for a travel magazine and wrote little fiction, but in the 1970s, he returned to science fiction with this new novel published in 1975. I’d never read it, and decided to try it recently.
The story involves a group of immortal humans who have become that way through accidental and peculiar situations, different for each of them. Gradually they have come to know each other and form a loose group of kindred souls. Each member of the group takes on a nickname to avoid the confusion of the multiple identities they must assume in the mundane world to avoid questions about their age. The narrator of the story is one of these immortals, who goes by the name Grand Guignol or Guig for short. He’s been trying for centuries to understand and duplicate the immortality process, and he finds what he thinks would be the perfect candidate, a Cherokee physicist named Sequoyah Guess. Guess is about to begin a major experiment with the help of a giant computer. Some of the immortals are present when he does, but the experiment goes wrong, and Guess is incapacitated and in a coma even though evidence shows he’s gained immortality. The Immortals take Guess to the lands of his people, where he gradually recovers, but something is wrong. His personality has changed, and it’s gradually revealed that the computer has taken over his mind, and they are now merged, causing Guess to take uncharacteristic actions, including trying to kill some of the immortals who the computer sees as a threat. Meanwhile, Guig has fallen in love with Sequoyah’s sister in his time on the reservation, and they marry. After Guig is nearly killed by the computer, he and his wife retreat to a remote part of South America. Gradually the immortals reconnect with each other and put together a dangerous plan to destroy the computer that’s making life difficult for all of them.
There are aspects of this book I enjoyed, but it’s a flawed work, and I think the biggest problem for me was the first-person narration by Guig. The character is sarcastic, makes lots of jokes, and reacts even to near-death with little concern, so it’s hard for the reader to get very worried or concerned either. None of the characters really came to life for me, they seemed more like puzzle pieces moving through this plot-driven story, and I didn’t care that much about any of them. The plot itself is interesting, but this book had none of the spark and freshness of Bester’s earlier novels. Mildly recommended.