August 4, 2006

From Gerald R. Lucas

Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit”

Man, I’m beautifully hot.

I can’t think of a more appropriate story to read on a scorching summer day than Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit.” This science fiction narrative uses the heat almost as if it’s a character with its own volition. If not a character, it’s definitely a force of nature that seems to act on the protagonist in deliciously violent ways, like the Dog Days when Sirius’ influence would incite disease, discomfort, and insanity. Heat is the major influence in this story, bringing about violence and disorder in James Vandaleur. It seems that the world is not immune to heat’s influence, and Bester’s protagonist(s) embody nature overthrowing and subduing human reason.

Vandaleur radiates a bit more heat than he does light. He and his malfunctioning android are always on the run, but Vandaleur is not always smart about how he does it: his cravings seem to get the better of him, eschewing his common sense for gratification. For example, when he changes his name, he always uses the same initials, as his short-lived lover Dallas Brady points out when she confronts him: “And Valentine was a little too close to Vandaleur. That wasn’t smart, was it?” (824). Also, rather than staying inconspicuous, Vandaleur can’t seem to overcome the lure of his libido.

Also, even early in the story, Vandaleur seems to be the third-person narrator, but there’s an occasional “I” thrown into the story, and sometimes a “we.” At first, this was confusing enough to make me question what I was reading, or if I had been paying attention. I had to look back over what I just read to be sure it was what it was. This constant and progressively apparent switching of narratorial point of view seems to be an early clue about Vandaleur’s state-of-mind.

Not only does Vandaleur’s desire cloud his judgment, but this theme runs throughout “Fondly Fahrenheit.” While Dallas accuses Vandaleur of not being too smart, she, too, seems to be a victim of her own body’s cravings. When she is first introduced, the narrator describes her: “She was short, stocky, amoral, and a nymphomaniac” who seduces Vandaleur and hires his android (824). Not too bright herself, especially since she continues to employ the android even after she figures out who Vandaleur is.

Another example of desire overcoming reason can be seen in the figure of Blenheim, the blind mathematician. Since Vandaleur can’t figure out why his android has become seemingly psychotic, he attempts to rob Blenheim, who is suffering from his own troubles: he is getting old, and he is losing his enthusiasm and creativity for numbers. He wants so desperately to hold onto his his renown as a great mathematician, he agrees to help Vandaleur, even though the latter just tried to mug him and will probably kill him once Blenheim figures out why the android is malfunctioning. Blenheim eagerly takes the risk in order to get what he wants — in essence blinded by his desire to recapture his waning youth.

Perhaps this is Bester’s main idea here: that no matter how advanced humans think we can get through our reason and the products of that reason — technological sophistication ȃ there is always a force of nature that lurks just below the surface that can snatch it away at an instant. Bester examines human passion and reason, the way heat is measured on a Fahrenheit scale. Yes, we can know by looking at a thermometer that it’s 101°F outside, but rationally knowing that fact is not the same as a body’s experiencing it. The heat does weird things to the body, making it see what isn’t there, and confusing the senses, shutting down reason (light) through exposure to too much passion (heat).

This passion is contagious. We all have experienced road rage at one time or another. This type of rage seems to be exacerbated in the hot summer sun. As a motorcyclist, I swear that more SUVs pull out in front of me on hot days than they do in on moderate or cold ones. When this happens, I feel my own blood pressure rising and my scalp bristling in my helmet: didn’t that jerk see me?! Normally a very rational person, I suddenly flare up like a blow torch, ready to scald whatever comes near me. I seem not to be alone in this.

Bester calls this idea projection: “a throwing forward. It is the process of throwing out upon another the ideas or impulses that belong to oneself” (832). Vandaleur’s own psychosis is not only covered up by his own rational mind, it seems, but those ideas and impulses are so strong that they are communicated to his android — a being that is itself a product of human reason. Even his sense of identity becomes projected outside his body, so that “I” becomes “he” and sometimes “we.” The point of view changes quickly and frequently enough to cause me discomfort, but I got used to it after a while, like one might the sun on a hot day. However, I have to wonder if, like that summer sun, this constant shift is doing me any harm. What is it doing to my reason? Perhaps, since the android’s senses are more in-tune with its surrounding, it is more vulnerable to projection? Possibly, since technology is imbued with the whole history of human evolution, it also contains that heat that was so important for humanity’s survival for so long.

Bester suggests that reason might not be as powerful as we think, a veneer that can crack as easily as paint on a house under a relentless sun. But we are fond of thinking we are in control of our passions, indicated by our propensity to measure, scale, and contain that which, like the heat, is not containable in any scale, be it Celsius or Fahrenheit.

Indeed, I just paid the highest electric bill I have ever paid during the summer, since it’s the hottest summer I remember ever experiencing in my life. And it’s just going to get hotter, I’m afraid. Perhaps it’s already beginning to melt away our reason. Can we ever escape the heat? Man, I know that Jerry is hot! We are.