Author: Alfred Bester
Title: The Stars My Destination
Bester’s SF classic, Tiger, Tiger!, renamed later to The Stars My Destination for the American market, remains one of his most popular and highly valued novels. Praised for originality as a forerunner of cyberpunk, and for respect for classics as a SF retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo (and clear inspiration from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Blake’s Songs of Experience), The Stars My Destination remains an immensely readable book. It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly 70 years old, as the prose and the meta-level of skilfully interwoven references and tropes are still very, almost cuttingly fresh.
There is a lot to like in this novel, certainly; intriguing ideas, masterful worldbuilding, fast-paced and delightfully twisty plot. The only problem I had with this book was the characters themselves 😉 And it is, sadly, a rather big problem, all the virtues of Bester’s novel notwithstanding. But ad rem.
The Stars My Destination takes place in the late 24th/25th century, when people indeed reached the stars; there is a conflict brewing between Outer Satellites and Inner Planets (haven’t we had this borrowed quite recently in a very popular, and very long, space opera??), originally socio-economic in nature, but becoming more and more lethal by the day. The reason for the unrest is simple: people learned how to jaunte, thereby upsetting the existing balance. Jaunting is a form of personal teleportation requiring only two elements: personal willpower, and the knowledge of latitude, longitude, and elevation of the excursion and destination points. There is just one caveat: jaunting is possible only on the surface of planets. Because jaunting is such an equalizing force, it profoundly changes the social structures, norms and customs, upending previous order and creating an uneasy, restless time of change, both progressive and reactionary. Women as usual get the short shrift, because as the societies become more feudal, exclusive and xenophobic, with gigantic corporations taking the place of monarchies, and the ruling families very much dependent on the quality of their scions, the women (especially their bodies) are treated as commodity.
Well, one thing is sure: Bester had this all thought through, in laudable detail. The Stars My Destination is a pretty short book, especially for contemporary standards of the genre, and it’s mostly action-focused: all the complex worldbuilding is so perfectly inserted into the lives and actions of the protagonists that it requires almost no exposition (well, with the exception of jaunting, but that takes mere few pages at the beginning, and afterwards it’s a wild ride till the very end). It’s great.
The story, though, and the protagonist, leave something to be desired, at least for me. Bester’s novel is a tale of vengeance, already at the very beginning foretold to grow to mythical proportions. And that it does, making the impossible possible, delivering the awe and terror it promised. Yet to achieve this, Bester must make the protagonist, one Gulliver Foyle, larger than life – a hero in the very ancient sense, a scourge and deliverance in one terrifying package, an almost religious figure resembling more St Augustine – or St Paul – than Christ, particularly in his early sinful days. So Foyle, our everyman, starts out as a primitive brute; focused only on survival, and later vengeance, unable to appreciate ideas and values higher than the lowest rung of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, he plows on because he cannot imagine stopping. He will rape and blackmail and rob his way through to his precious revenge, shedding friendships and loyalties as dandruff in his wake. Indelibly marked during one of his early adventures, sporting a full facial tattoo in the Maori style, he unknowingly becomes the eponymous Tyger from Blake’s poem:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
So, a disastrous force of nature, prowling through the confused and ruthless jungle of humanity. A pretty powerful picture, right there. Very… picturesque, and metaphorical, and actually quite evocative for all its artifice.
Because to make his grand allegory work, Bester makes Foyle a completely unrealistic character. His beginnings are largely artificial, as he seems way too dumb to actually become a starship crew member, and yet we find him as the sole survivor of a space accident. Regressed to an animalistic state in a cold, gutted wreck of the ship, he switches from survival to vengeance in the blink of an eye, and suddenly he’s able to rescue himself, his sudden mental evolution propelled only by the thirst for revenge for being left for dead. He doesn’t stop there, but makes a total metamorphosis along the way, becoming a walking killing machine, a suave member of the elite, a sage in the unrecognizable disguise of a clown, and a master of meditation. As a result of this removal from reality all of Foyle’s light-speed growth and the final development of ethical/moral sense seem very far-fetched indeed and lack the emotional payoff – at least for me. In short, in Gully Foyle Bester writes about an idea, not a person.
Well, it’s his right as an author. The novel still works somehow, even with a largely one-dimensional protagonist – and that’s a testament to Bester’s skill. And yet, call me old-fashioned, but the fact that Foyle’s early journey leaves broken lives in its wake and he’s never really held accountable for it, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I know that Bester tries to show the bestiality of early Foyle – he ruthlessly destroys the shelter of the people who saved him, rapes a defenceless person just because he can and then has the gall to blackmail her for help, he leaves his lover for death in space, choosing greed and revenge over loyalty, responsibility and simple humanity, etc. – to illustrate how this bestiality can be overcome and sublimated into a new, thoughtful version of Ubermensch. But the fact that for most of the novel Foyle destroys everything he touches makes him not only an unlikeable protagonist, but also a rotten role model: he’s impossible to accept in his new role of humanity’s space-faring messiah even after his final dramatic epiphany.
Yet while the ride lasts, it’s epic. The breadth and scope of Bester’s imagination is a thing to behold. I’m not fond of his depiction of women, granted – there’s a deep division between “strong” and “spoiled” for me – or the unrealistic and unlikeable special-snowflake protagonist; but for a nearly 70-year-old grandpa of a book this novel holds up quite well indeed.