Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956)

Author: Alfred Bester

Title: The Stars My Destination

Format: e-book

Pages: 258

Series: –

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.

Maori facial tattoos actually have a long and fascinating history and are important part of mythology – as in all oral cultures the symbolism inherent in the tattoos serves as a form of multi-generational chronicle and depicts the social status; the lines and symbols on both sides of the face showcase the past of the matri- and patrilinear sides of the family of the bearer. I wish Bester had a bit more respect for the Otherness in his work, 1950s or not 😉

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.

Score: 7/10

41 thoughts on “Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956)

  1. Well, a 7/10 is way higher than I thought you’d give it 🙂

    I’ve only read his Demolished Man back in highschool and disliked it enough that I’ve never tried another. After your review and revealing what kind of character he is, I think I’ll stick with that decision.

    How about you? Going to try any more from him?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Not sure. Demolished Man has generally good reviews, but if I read it it won’t be soon. I think I need some Asher, and I have some totally non-SF books on my list now, guess I just need a short break and some different genres are a perfect way to do it 😉
      It’s a very ’50s read: the stereotype of strong man, the adventurous feel of SF, the conciseness of the prose… I was reminded of Heinlein 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ve STILL got Asher’s latest on my tbr instead of devouring it. I’m going to do my best to get to it early ’22 though.
        What is next for you and Asher?

        And are we talking juvie Heinlein or adult “Job” style Heinlein?

        Liked by 2 people

          1. Oh, I hope you enjoy Spatterjay.
            Definitely early Asher so it’s not nearly as polished as some of his recent works, but I also feel his descriptions of the mix of organic and tech is more “real” than some of the paragraphs of “tech talk” we’ve gotten in the latest trilogy.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it 😀 – guess that’s why I’m keeping it on the TBR, just like I used to do with Cook’s Black Company: a special treat for a special occasion 😉

              I really liked The Technician, which is kind of between early and late books, and hits the sweet spot of writerly polish and still highly original ideas 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, I know what you mean. Gully is one nasty piece of work, for all his achievements 😉

      As a side note, though, I always find it interesting how our culture seems to have forgotten that originally Greek heroes were both heroes and anti-heroes in one awe- and terror-inspiring package. I guess we don’t cope too well with ambiguity, we like our Supermen and Spider-Men uniformly good, and our war heroes always impeccable 😉 That’s why ambivalent characters such as the Punisher are so fascinating to me, I guess 😂😂😂

      Like

  2. Great review! Heroes with flaws, horrific personality, tending to anti-heroes. Embedding rape as a side-note. That’s not easy to take in. I seem to have liked it better than you but have no review around. His Demolished Man has similar flaws.
    I like Bester because of those parts where he shines.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!! ☺️
      Bester certainly has a way with words, and great imagination. I’m sure I’d have liked this book more if it was an early read for me; I seem to be less forgiving and more discerning as the library of the books I’ve read grows and I get older and less impressionable 🤣🤣🤣

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! It makes me want to read it all over again! It was actually one of the first SF novels I ever read, in the first year of my burgeoning reading hobby. And it blew my mind with how many awesome invention it had. I was also a very young adult and not an experienced reader, so my thoughts about it weren’t very complex, but I remember it fondly. Gully Foyle’s character wasn’t someone to emulate, but for the young guy that I was, Foyle’s brutishness didn’t bother me. Hopefully it will hold up on a reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jeroen! ☺️

      As I said to Andreas, I’d have probably enjoyed it more if it was one of my first SF reads – I’d have been way less critical and discerning then, and the adventurous spirit of this novel at the cost of psychological realism would have made more impact on me. As it is, I still admire Bester’s imagination and conciseness, and both his acknowledgement of the pulpy origins of the genre and his aspiration to something greater than that through his various literary inspirations.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 🙂
      It’s certainly an interesting book, I think it deserves a chance – holds up pretty well, all things considered, and it’s IMO a classic definitely more readable than, say, Asimov’s Foundation 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Mmmmm…. I’m very conflicted here: the story sounds both intriguing and immersive (and the reference to the Count of Montecristo with its tale of vengeance is quite irresistible), but your description of the main character does not bode well for my connection with this novel. I guess this is one of those instances in which only direct experience with the book can give me an answer… Still, thank you very much for a very thought-provoking review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Maddalena, for reading! 🙂 You’re right, this novel is one of those best tried out on one’s own: you may be swept away by the adventure, or be left coldly and clinically analyzing its flaws, or like me, torn between the two 🤣 it’s a classic, and short, so even if you won’t like it, you won’t regret reading it (hopefully!) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Like Jeroen above, this was one of my earliest SF reads. I enjoyed it at the time and thought it had some cool concepts in it. Yeah, Gully is a bit of a scumbag, isn’t he?! I think younger me enjoyed his don’t-give-a-feck attitude. I’m not sure which one I like more between this and The Demolished Man. But it has been a while since I read them; long before I started my blog.😅 It was a William Gibson interview that got me to read Bester; he is a big fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, now you have an opportunity for a reread – and a review! 😀

      Yeah, I can see why Gibson would like Bester – after all, so many of Bester’s ideas are so very cyberpunk that it seems fair to call Bester the grandpa of cyberpunk 😉

      Liked by 1 person

            1. I’ll need to get the book first 😉 I have a queue of about 5-7 books that I need to read first (I’ll have to take a closer look and see if some can be pushed back 😉 – so, how do you feel about January?

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Even if I may understand that the author writes about an idea, not a person, I still think it would bother me reading about a protagonist like that. Still, it sounds like the strengths of the story make up for that. I guess 7 is a very decent rating from you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an interesting book, mainly in a positive way 😉 Bester tries to talk about humanity at large through Gully Foyle – it’s just that while he seems quite visionary for his time, I certainly hope we got a bit further in our understanding of humanity, morality, and our potential since. I prefer to see this book as an adventure in space, because then it is a largely satisfying read. Bester’s philosophical attempts leave something to be desired, so were I to view this book through ambitious speculative fiction lens, I’d give it lower rating. As it is, though, I enjoyed it enough for a 7 😁
      It actually dovetails nicely with our discussion about classics – for a forerunner of the genre it holds up pretty well. Are there better books on the same topic? Sure. But Bester was first in many aspects, and I respect that 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Hmm I’d probably take it down a notch for its treatment of women – especially the instrumental and rather unthinking use of rape. I feel that Bester was intent on showing the general equality of the sexes, and managed to do it well, for the most part – better than many cultural artifacts of our time, because women in his novel are not only victims but also perpetrators, and even outright villains – but at the same time they do seem to be playing second fiddle to the men, mostly creating a background to the main relationships that are exclusively male.
          But there’s also this knowledge at the back of my mind that if this was a new book then we might have never discovered cyberpunk, for example – and Bester’s ideas in that regard are still pretty fresh, even today. So I guess I’d stick to my rating anyway, maybe give it a 6, and probably just end up being more critical in the text of the review 🤣 I do have a lot of respect for classics 😂

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Very intriguing stuff. A bit unfortunate that the major flaw is in such a key character and it doesn’t sound like it’s something that can be easily overlooked if you’re looking to be fully immersed by the story considering how unrealistic he becomes. The wrapping around still seems pretty decent. Will you be giving the author another try in the near future or do you feel like you got as much as you could enjoy from him with this particular work?? Great review, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! ☺️

      It’s pretty decent, indeed. Has its flaws but for its time it’s still really well-written and original. Actually, I just stroke a deal with Wakizashi for a buddy read of The Demolished Man in January, so there will be another review of Bester’s work on the blog! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This was a very compelling review. It is quite a shame for the MC, though. All you wrote about the worldbuilding and the ideas of the book is fascinating and interesting. But all you wrote about the character made me decide against it. It is just not for me. But reading your review was interesting for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Susy!
      Yes, it’s not a universally liked book, I think mostly because of the protagonist. If you like classic SF, go for it, but if you don’t feel it’s a book for you, I’d just pass without regrets 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You gave this a pretty good rating, despite its depiction of women. Or did you allow for leeway in the author’s opinion because “it was a different time”?

    Think I would’ve roasted it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did allow for some leeway, come on – 70 years is quite a bit of time 😉 But also, I felt that Bester didn’t treat women badly – the treatment of women was for him more of an easy tool to show his protagonist’s development from an unthinking brute to an evolved mystic. There are strong women in this, it’s just they are all a scene-setting of sorts: it’s very much a one protagonist novel (not unlike Blood Song, for example).

      I think you might even enjoy it, if you decide to give it a try, Will! 😉

      Like

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