Visiting with the Classics – The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

As planned, I’ve set the Flashbackatron to 1956 for this month’s review of classic science fiction. This time up, we have one of Alfred Bester’s two acknowledged masterworks (the other being The Demolished Man, which I’ve also not read): The Stars My Destination.

Stars_my_destination_masterworks

The Stars My Destination is the story of Gully (Gulliver) Foyle, a no-account starship crewman whose Merchant Marine work evaluation is helpfully provided in the first few pages. Education: None; Skills: None; Merits: None; Recommendations: None; Personnel Comments: “~Has reached a dead end.”

Indeed when the story opens – after a brief prologue recounting solar expansion, imminent conflict and the unexpected development of teleportation by willpower – Gully Foyle finds himself on the brink of death. Having spent for six months clinging to the barely-functioning remains of the destroyed freighter Nomad, surviving by sheer brute determination not to give up, he spies another ship passing close enough to signal for rescue. But instead of bringing him aboard, the Vorga speeds away, leaving Foyle to his fate.

Foyle swears he will live to exact his revenge; the rest of the book follows his system-wide journey to make good on that promise. The plot is (as Bester cheerfully acknowledged) lifted from The Count of Monte Cristo: Foyle dedicates himself wholly to the cause of finding those responsible for his abandonment.

It’s easy to sympathise with the premise; it’s much more difficult to sympathise with Foyle. He is brutish to the point of savagery, illiterate, intemperate, relentlessly single-minded and thoroughly amoral. He manipulates and exploits everyone he meets, using force of personality on some and threats (and more) of violence on others. He assaults, sabotages, rapes and kills in pursuit of his goals. He’s not what you’d call a classic hero.

On the other hand, he is a deeply compelling protagonist. Recognising his own limitations early on, but unwilling in his merciless pursuit of his cause to permit them to limit him, Gully Foyle learns. He develops skills, including social graces, technological knowledge and mastery of various psychic disciplines, most notably personal teleportation (or “jaunte”, as it is called here).

For a book written sixty years ago, Stars holds up surprisingly well. Bester’s canny decision to make his dominant social group impose a retro-Victorian aesthetic both presages aspects of steampunk (oddly making it seem more plausible right now than it was both when it was written and ten years ago) and avoids the usual trap of the instantly-dated future. If some of Foyle’s behaviours are as perplexing as they are repellent, they don’t tend to overshadow the forward momentum of the book. This thing rips along – each chapter presents a completely new setting. The teleportation plot device certainly reduces the likelihood of tedious travel sequences. And the ending, which veers into wildly experimental territory ten to fifteen years before the New Wave of SF kicked off, delivers a resolution that exceeds the writerly commandment to be unpredictable yet inevitable.

Basically it’s great. Certainly deserving of the classic label. The Stars My Destination clearly has influences all over the place. If I were to pick just one, it would be The Tomorrow People, the groovy mid-seventies Thames Television show about evolved teenagers with psychic powers; it also called its teleportation “jaunting”. To this day I can’t hear that word spoken out loud without also hearing the primitive electronic shimmer sound effect that accompanied the primitive electronic shimmer visual effect. Man, when I was eleven that was definitely the best show on television ever. (I would not have predicted that it would spawn not one but *two* sequel series, however).

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The Tomorrow People

But I digress. Gully Foyle is certainly a troubling protagonist, though a striking one with his livid tiger-pattern facial tattoos, disorienting mood swings and brutal cunning. The Stars My Destination is a thrilling, violent revenge thriller and political potboiler with spaceship crashes, prison breaks and gratuitous psychic powers.

I kind of loved it.

 

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2 Responses to Visiting with the Classics – The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

  1. Herr Doktor Clam says:

    You might have noticed that I’ve been inspired to follow in your footsteps with Wayback machine adventures. I was impressed at how much both the New Wave and the Cyberpunk genre seemed to have roots in this book, and its overwhelming individuality – I could not imagine any process of workshopping, critiquing, and re-re-re-drafting leaving anything recognisable from this work of incandescent iconoclasm.
    I thought many of the supporting characters were more interesting than Foyle. I might have to rewrite it from the viewpoint of Moira sometime. 😉

  2. Lexifab says:

    It certainly has a distinctive narrative voice – sheer boisterous confidence might be close to describing it. I actually think it comes out as somewhat critical of the Golden Age ethos of rugged individuality (which is another way in which it predicts the New Wave) in that Foyle, who embodies that ethos, is pretty unremittingly terrible (though I guess in the end he probably saves more lives than he ruins).

    I agree with you about the supporting characters – despite her terrible name Jizbella McQueen is an excellent action hero, and I would like to have seen a chapter or two of Y’ang-Yeovil casting his intelligence network out to hunt down Foyle. I also loved the rather ridiculous scenes where Dagenham is just wildly radioactive all over everybody.

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