Alfred Bester's 1950s novel The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!), which I have read many times and reviewed on this blog in June 2008, is my favourite SF novel. So when I rediscovered a copy of his 1974 novel Extro lurking on my shelves where it had been hiding since I first read it a few years after publication, I was curious to read it again.
The story is set on a future Earth, at a time when humanity has spread to some of the other planets and moons, but no further. The hero, nicknamed Guig (don't ask) is a Moleman – short for Molecular Man, potentially immortal although capable of being killed by catastrophic physical damage. Such men (and women) were created by chance, through experiencing a deep shock at the molecular level from being faced by the certainty of imminent death before being saved at the last instant by a freak accident. These circumstances were so rare that that the secret Group of Molemen was very small, varying in age from a mere century or so to thousands of years.
Guig lives with a precocious young teenage girl who has adopted him and has some unusual abilities that make her useful as his assistant. Another key character is a Cherokee scientist who becomes the latest recruit to the Group, but in the process becomes linked to Extro, the all-pervading computer system which runs just about everything. The problem is that Extro appears to be going off the rails and is starting to wage war against humanity. Even worse, the Molemen gradually realise that one of their number has gone rogue, and is working with Extro to kill them all.
What follows is a supercharged romp of a tale, with strange beings, settings and ideas being thrown around like confetti in typical Bester style. The pace is such that there is little time to worry about whether the internal logic all hangs together, although I suspect the plot is full of holes for those who wish to hunt for them. It isn't worth it, however – just hang on and enjoy the ride. One noticeable difference between Extro and TSMD results from the fact that the sexual revolution had taken place in the interim, with the early 1970s spirit of "anything goes" being reflected in the later book – possibly causing a degree of discomfort to present-day readers in our more censorious times.
I had forgotten the plot of the novel almost entirely, but realised as I read that I did remember a few brief scenes very clearly; all of them concerned with the two females in his life (the other being the one who becomes his wife). It's rather unusual for a couple of secondary characters to be the most memorable aspects of an SF novel!
Extro is not in the same league as TSMD, but then, nothing is – by Bester or anyone else. It is worth reading as a good example of early 1970s SF, full of pace and ideas if not always making sense.