Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bye Bye Pi - #20

STORY: "The Pi Man" by Alfred Bester


BASICALLY: First-person account of a man who must compulsively provide balance to the universe's continuously evolving pattern (though even he doesn't understand it). His unique ability has brought him enormous wealth (thanks to his sensitivity to financial patterns) but has also left him isolated from his fellow humans, whom he must sometimes hurt in order to create that balance. But one woman tries to prove that her love is stronger than any pattern.

Did you notice the thematic confluence? Monday 3/14 was Pi Day! Yay! But I was writing a Spanish paper and didn't have a chance to tell you about this cool story. Boo! So I hope your mathematically-inclined celebrations will continue throughout the week at least.

Alfred Bester's "The Pi Man" is a strange amalgamation of sophisticated experimental literature and pulpy genre conventions. The latter kind of undercuts the former and closes the piece on a mediocre note, but I still heartily recommend this fun, odd tale. Bester began writing science fiction during its Golden Age, but he didn't fit so neatly into the genre box as some of his contemporaries, like Isaac Asimov or Robert A. Heinlein. This 1959 Hugo-nominated story shows how versatile and creative his prose could be.

(When I was googling Bester, I ran across this great little review of "The Pi Man" that rates the story on a scale of its "hardness." As in, Is it hard sci-fi, or not hard sci-fi? Which I think is adorable. What other genre do we measure by its "hardness" in that sense? There's no Hard Literary Fiction breakout, or Hard Romance [unless you have a filthy, filthy mind]. A "hard-boiled" mystery might be the closest comparison. …But hey, genre breakdowns! These are just some of the excruciatingly geeky things that interest me!)

So, anyway. The story. The first thing that slaps you in the face is the narrator's voice. Almost simultaneously, you try to take in the unconventional formatting of some of the words and sentences. Is it a robot speaking? A lunatic? Impossible to tell. The story basically zooms off in high gear from the initial plunge—though no real action yet, just the jumbled musings of this narrator whose English is a bit off. He's forcefully, fervidly trying to convey something magnetic and significant and unusual, but whatever it is it resists immediate understanding.

Interestingly, the narrator does explain, almost right off, what's going on—but I noticed it only after I went back and reread. Everything at the beginning is careening so weirdly and stylistically that the explanation gains real sense only in hindsight: 

Confusion result of biological compensator born into my body which I hate. Yes, birds and beasts have biological clock built in, and so navigate home from a thousand miles away. I have biological compensator, equalizer, responder to unknown stresses and strains. I relate, compensate, make and shape patterns, adjust rhythms, like a gridiron pendulum in a clock, but this is an unknown clock, and I do not know what time it keeps. Nevertheless I must. I am force. Have no control over self, speech, love, fate. Only to compensate.
What I dislike, though, is that Bester later offers up a bald-faced, straightforward explanation of the same phenomenon. The narrator identifies himself to an FBI interrogator as Peter Marko and explains to the agent everything he knows about himself and his function as a compensator. Argh. Way to wreck your aura of mystery, dude.

The story, then, is divided into two parts. The first half shows a cryptic, sphinxlike Marko in action. His work in arbitrage puts him "ahead by $57,075.94 by half-past noon…57075 makes a nice pattern but that 94¢! Iych! Ugly. Symmetry above all else. Alas, only 24¢ hard money in my pockets. Called the secretary, borrowed 70¢ from her, and threw sum total out window." He is forced by the same compulsions to beat up an elderly clerk at City Hall, and then to anonymously send the guy $1000 in cash afterwards. Stakes are significant and Bester does a great job at building suspense.

But the second half of the story devolves very suddenly. Marko gets picked up by the FBI, but isn't worried about what will happen because apparently this is a commonplace occurrence for him. Pesky government agencies are always mistaking him and his "signal jamming" equipment for an espionage operation. Marko explains who and what he is to the agent, how he operates in the world, and then he's let go. His former secretary, Jemmy Thompson, has fallen in love with him, and he tries to resist her charms because he knows his abilities make him sometimes do terrible things to the people he cares about—in fact, are very likely to do so: "I make one last effort to save her. 'I love you, paleface, and you know what that can mean. When the patterns turn cruel, you may be the sacrifice.'" But she coos something about love making patterns, too, clinging sexily to him, and that's it.

If I were forced to defend this story in a debate, I might claim that the weak and cliché-ridden second half balances out its literary, artful first half, thus illustrating its theme of the need for universal balance. But I don't really buy that. I think Bester wrote himself into a corner and had to fall back on conventional storytelling tropes to end the thing.

To my mind, Bester could have fixed "The Pi Man" in one of two ways. Either he could have developed Jemmy into a more interesting character in her own right, rather than just a smidge better than a girly type, and so made the romance that flourishes between her and Peter Marko into something nuanced. Or he could have dispensed with the silly romance altogether and given Peter something genuinely interesting to do with his unusual power/curse, something that might have real implications. Maybe it would have worked better in a novel, where a cheesy, pulp-style romance could have crept into the background as set furniture and allowed a thrilling plot to rocket out of Bester's fantastic premise.

The moral of today's write-up is, I'd say, that your story has to live up to the expectations it sets at the beginning. If "The Pi Man" had been pulpy and conventional from the get-go, its ending wouldn't have disappointed. But Bester went out on a limb and did something truly interesting with his opening that, unfortunately, he wasn't able to deliver on. Still, I think it's a great story to learn from, so check it out and see what you think.

And here's a gratuitous picture of my parents' dog, Cody.  He is not so into this reading thing.


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