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"5,271,009" was inspired by this Fred Kirberger painting of a prisoner on an asteroid. Note the serial number "5271009" on the prisoner's chest.

"5,271,009" is a science fiction/fantasy short story by American writer Alfred Bester. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, in 1954, it is also known as "The Starcomber".[1]

Plot summary[edit]

To repair the mind of insane artist Jeffrey Halsyon, supernatural being Solon Aquila causes Halsyon to live out various wish fulfillment scenarios — all of which are terribly flawed.


The story was commissioned to fit a pre-existing piece of cover art, wherein a man in a prison uniform (with the serial number 5271009) is shackled to an asteroid.[2]

Bester subsequently explained "5,271,009" as being the number of decisions a man must make in his life;[3] as well, the number features in each scenario in some way.


David Langford has described it as "one of [his] favourite shorts (by Bester)",[1] and Tim Sullivan called it "an extraordinary exploration of solipsism."[4]

Critic and editor Sherryl Vint has posited that the story might be read as "an analogy for [Bester's] relationship to sf",[3] while Fiona Kelleghan has described Aquila as "a sort of fallen angel".[5]


  1. ^ a b Author's Note, in Starcombing, by David Langford, originally published by Wildside Press, 2009
  2. ^ Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, by David G. Hartwell; published January 24, 2017, by Macmillan Publishers
  3. ^ a b Alfred Bester (1913-87), by Sherryl Vint, in Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction (edited by Mark Bould, Andrew Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint; published September 10, 2009, by Routledge
  4. ^ SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, by Tim Sullivan, in the Washington Post; published November 30, 1997; retrieved October 18, 2018
  5. ^ Hell's My Destination: Imprisonment in the Works of Alfred Bester, by Fiona Kelleghan, in Science Fiction Studies, #64 = Volume 21, Part 3 = November 1994; archived at DePauw University

External links[edit]