Peter Nicholls, former administrator of the Science Fiction Foundation at the North East London Polytechnic, is the editor of The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, which has been nominated for a 1980 Hugo award. CAPTION: Illustration, "Where's here?, From "Golem 100" $120 IF SCIENCE-FICTION WRITERS were named like trains, then Alfred Bester would be The Spirit of New York . Perhaps it's a paradox that such a now city should haunt so many of Bester's crazed, future thens, but New York's violence and its argot, its crowds and its cops, its greed, its generosity and its excitement resonate through his sf stories as no doubt they resonate through his skull. As to the train schtick, as Bester might put it, why, he's noisy, impressive, irresistible and puffing; his progress through the night is punctuated with whistles and shrieks and he's not always on time. Much the same could be said of his new (and long awaited) science-fiction novel, Golem 100 , which is set in the year 2175, but first surprises by its strangely familiar scent -- yes, that's it, the smell of the 1960s. Has something gone wrong? Even within the baroque halls of science fiction, home of lunatic individualism, Alfred Bester has always been his own man to a remarkable degree. Why should we be able to predict him? He is aware of the lunacy, too. Bester once said, describing a meeting with John W. Campbell Jr., the late editor of Astounding Science Fiction , the greatest of the sf pulps: "It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science-fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles." Bester is a science-fiction writer's writer. He has been much admired by the old wave, the hard science men (James Blish loved his work), but equally a hero to the young turks of the 1960s new wave, the writers of the left, the people who think that inner space has just as much to do with sf as outer space -- writers like Michael Moorcock. Yet all this was on the basis of only two novels, The Demolished Man (1953) and The Stars My Destination(1956), and perhaps a dozen good short stories. As a science-fiction writer, Bester has never been prolific, merely revoluntionary. Born in 1913, New York Jewish, with a university career notable for its variegated coloring (humanities, science and law), Bester burst into science fiction with a tiny explosion when he won a short story competition sponsored by Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1939. He published 14 sf stories up to 1943. ('Hell Is Forever," in 1942, a deal-with-the-devil story bubbling over with pop psychology, reads like a first and 38-years premature draft for Golem 100 .) In that year he moved to the demanding if not classy world of comics scripting (Superman, Batman ), and later to radio scripting (Charlie Chan, The Shadow ), a forcing house for taut plotting, for those tough enough to survive. But the busy Bester mind began to feel the constraints of working to formula and having to please sponsors. In the early 1950s he turned again to the relative freedom of science fiction, and during the next decade he became one of the immortals of what was then (though not now) something of a shabby and underground literature. You can still see fans at sf conventions wearing badges that say "Vorga, I kill you deadly." These were the words of Gully Foyle, the inarticulate, vengeful hero of The Stars My Destination , as he swore to get even with the starship that abandoned him in space. Gully Foyle is the archetypal Besterman, the 200th-century, pulp equivalent of the malcontent of Jacobean revenge dramas, brooding, sardonic, obsessed and murderous -- at once ironic commentator and brutal actor in a dark, amoral world. But no synopsis can hope to capture the Bester flavor -- tough but literate, florid but sensitive, and always ebullient, though the sparkles and bubbles swirl in a somber brew that is altogether move toxic than seltzer. You can imagine some of it if you think of him as the Raymond Chandler of science fiction, but crueller, less sentimental. And back in the 1950s it wasn't just the flavor, it was the seemingly endless inventiveness. Bester's magpie mind (his own phrase) was dazzling us with future shock, both inner and outer, long before Toffler invented the phrase. No reader can forget Ben Reich of The Demolished Man as he writes out his obsessed mind against the possibility of telepathic peeping with a specially commissioned advertising jungle, a jingle that tinkles meaninglessly across the surface of his brain, which seethes underneath in homicidal currents. Even schizophrenia needs its PR consultants in Bester's maniac future. He was one of the greats, and then he left sf, with just a very occasional story to remind us of what he could do, as he forged success in a new career, interviewing and then editing for Holiday magazine. There was one more novel in 1975, The Computer Connection , which was still witty, but the old white-hot fire seemed banked down to a dull, red heat. More interesting was a short story of 1974, "The Four-Hour Fugue." $ golem 100 incorporates and expands this story into a full-scale novel. New York in 2175, known as the Guff. It's a jungle; life is cheap and so are sex and drugs, cannibalism and necrophilla. It's not a bad place. There's always something happening. But for eight elegant ladies with a low boredom quotient, it's not enough. So, lots of fun, they conjure up the devil. Well, they think they've failed, actually, but out in the Guff there are things happening that would make the Marquis de Sade look like a piker. The chief of police (a hindu from Bombay), the beautiful, black, lady psychodynamician and the Nose (he is the world's most creative scent and pheromone man, an important job in a future where water is too expensive to wash in) get together (several disembowellings later) and they finally figure out what all old fans who remember the film Forbidden Planet probably knew from the first: what we have here is a monster from the Id. It's no good. You cannot paraphrase Bester. You can swim in him or, as I did with this one, you can sink in him, but you cannot give a synopsis of a novel whose ingredients include an elaborate slang (but somehow it sounds like 1960s hip), diabolism merging with depth psychology and over 60 full-page illustrations by Jack Gaughan which are an intrinsic part of the story -- not to mention pukeboxes, swarming bee-ladies, Yiddish, sodomy, and more kinds of sex than you'll find in the standard textbooks. It's the authentic Bester flavor all right, much more so than it was in The Computer Connection , and the passion and humor are still there, but perhaps the fireworks don't come so easily any more. What used to be spare and sinewy now looks a little prolix; the craziness that used to be structural now looks like ornamentation. It's very strenuous. Where he wrote like a dancer, one, two, three, kick, now you can see the big old muscles straining. Bester's one-time juggling act, the balance between life and death forces, has altered too. Thanatos has all the balls in this one; the teeming human life of the Guff is not so much a cornucopia as a Masque of the Red Death. The superwoman of the next evolutionary phase is a queen bee; and I tell you now, you'll wince at what she does to the hero. The pictures are rather muddy, and the book has a smell which, when I think of it, is not quite the 1960s. It might be despair. The author's own phrase catches it -- the bouquet de malades . Bester's New York has always produced its obsessed, driven Bestermen but (has New York changed?) this one festers, more than ever before. The Besterman of this novel is the Golem itself.