The Stars My Destination
Vintage Books, 1996 (orig. 1956)
While something of a genre classic my introduction to The Stars My Destination was somewhat roundabout since I first heard the book mentioned on the video game/humor-centric podcast from the guys at Mega64. Co-founder of Mega64 Derrick “Derek” Acosta seemed pretty impressed with the title and his description of the plot sounded interesting. I circled the title for almost a year before finally breaking down and buying a copy, and man am I glad I did.
The Stars My Destination begins with that uneducated, potentially intelligent though unmotivated Gulliver “Gully” Foyle stranded and struggling to survive amongst the wreckage of a spaceship. Hope is briefly kindled as he flags down a passing ship, the Vorga, but is brutally extinguished as the ship passes him by. Vowing revenge on the ship and its crew the suddenly motivated Gully Foyle springs into action and embarks upon a bloody course of revenge with more than a little amount of colattoral damage.
The Stars My Destination borrow a fair bit from Dumas’ classic The Count of Monte Cristo. Foyle’s adoption of a aristocratic cover guise late in the novel, the shipwreck/treasure that fund that guise, and the similarities between his imprisonment in the Gouffre Martel, and the quest for revenge (including Foyles’ attachment to the offspring of one of his target) all evoke that adventure classic.
However where Edmond Dantes is an obviously wronged heroic figure, Gully Foyle is more of a monster consumed by rage, with his every passion dedicated towards his quest for revenge. While Edmond’s quest falls short of real collateral damage Foyle leaves a trail of wreckage in his wake. While I initially went into the novel with the impression of Foyle as a more heroic figure Bester clearly disabused me of that notion with a “off-screen” rape. If anyone has heard me talk about the Thomas Covenant books (of which I’ve only read one) you’d know that rape is one of the easiest ways to turn me away from a piece of fiction; especially when it is the so-called protagonist of the novel who commits the crime. With the Covenant books (or book, in my case) the titular character was never anything better than a self-pitying pain in the ass whose own self-loathing was as cancerous and damaging as the same evil he was supposedly sent to eradicate. At least with Gully Foyle, Bester makes a clear attempt to acknowledge that he is a monster. It isn’t an easy topic and it is a topic I’m not sure I have the necessary tools to really discuss properly. Again the rape is never explicitly discussed or described, the word rape is never even mentioned, but I still found it a remarkably troubling aspect of the novel that caused me to realign my expectations.
While a simple futuristic re-telling of a classically influenced revenge story would have been more than entertaining enough Bester manages to include some extraordinarily imaginative and fascinating elements into his novel that make stand out from the pack. First and foremost, and for me at least, most interesting was the very capitalist based aristocratic high society. If what we think of today as nobility had instead risen from business ownership instead of land ownership you would have something like the people seen in Bester’s novel. The great dynasties of Bester’s future have last names like Pepsi, Macy, and Kodak. I was particularly amused to when we learn that when attending formal events each family dresses in the fashions from the time period in which they were founded. It is a surprisingly clever and well thought-out bit of world-building that I absolutely loved.
They early section of the books deals with the discovery of personal teleportation, a natural ability that we all possess. Bester examines in a down-to-earth manner and the massive shift in economy that is a result of just about anybody being able to be where they want whenever they want forms a major part of the story as that same economic collapse and realignment of traditional models of transportation and economy, results in a schism and civil war between the outer and inner planets. If it isn’t obvious, Bester manages to cram this novel full of fascinating ideas and cool bits of sci-fi: telepathy, teleportation, holographic interrogation techniques, Lord of the Flies-esque communities of asteroid living crazed scientists.
While reading The Stars My Destination I found it hard to remember that this novel was written in 1956. There is a timeless quality to the novel and, with the possible exception of some names the younger crowd might not recognize (Gimbles was the one that stuck in my head), does not in any way show its age. For all its action the novel, after its high octane climax, ends with something of a philosophical denouement that manages to tie the disparate elements of Bester’s world building and characterization into a nice tidy whole that makes for a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. This is my first encounter with Alfred Bester, or at least the real Alfred Bester, and I must say that I am suitably impressed. While all indications seem to be that The Stars My Destination is his best work I am certainly impressed enough that I plan exploring more of his work in the future.