#31- The Stars My Destination Review – Alfred Bester

the stars my destination

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Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger! in the UK) is an ingeniously wild, expansive and primal novel filled with brilliant bits of scientific imagination and keen insights into mankind’s base impulses and predilection for obsession, revenge and power. Bester’s protagonist, Gully Foyle, is unlike any other character you’ve ever met before. He is a mess of contradictions, masks and moods – a simple minded everyman who becomes the most wanted man in the galaxy, a beast hell-bent on revenge who eventually develops a conscience, a solitary and selfish man who finally learns what it means to love someone else, and a violent predator who finally realizes the awesome power that the universe has given him. Often described as a direct precursor to and inspiration for the Cyber-Punk movement, this is one of those books that leaves you in awe of the sheer amount of raw imagination on display. While the characters and motivations aren’t always fleshed out completely, the universe that they reside in is so astounding and revelatory that it almost doesn’t matter. Even if you hate Gully Foyle, you can’t help but root for him to get whatever it is he’s looking for, however undefined it may be.

The Stars My Destination Summary: There is a brief prologue that helps explain to the reader that, in this near future, humans have stumbled upon the ability to teleport (or “Jaunte”) themselves over long distances instantaneously just by thinking about the location they want to go. The limit on jaunte distances seems to be set at 1,000 miles – and no one has been able to jaunte through space. Other than distance, the main constraints on jaunting stem from the fact that the jaunter needs to have a physical picture in their mind of both their current location and their desired destination. So, in order to keep thieving jaunters from showing up in their homes, the rich are forced to built elaborate mazes, windowless homes and defense systems so that intruders can’t produce an image of where they are supposed to be jaunting.

The main section of the novel opens with Gully floating in deep space among the wreckage of the merchant ship Nomad. Having survived alone in an airtight coffin like locker for six months, he is finally see a ray of hope when a passing ship, the Vorga, happens by and sees his distress signal. When the Vorga chooses to pass him by and leaved him still stranded, his ensuing rage eventually ferments into a full fledged vendetta against whoever was responsible for the decision to leave him to die. In the first section of the book, Bester paints Foyle as a simple everyman without a clear purpose or ambition who is “ignited” by his single-minded quest for revenge. It is this motivation that allows him to survive long enough to cobble together a vessel with enough power to launch him towards the nearest asteroid (which just so happens to be inhabited by a race of tattoo happy, Darwin quoting scavengers known as the “The Scientific People.” While unconscious, Gully’s face is completely tattooed in tribal patterns – along with the word “Nomad” right on his brow. While he eventually escapes the asteroid and makes his way back to Earth, the tattoo makes him physically repulsive to anyone he meets.

Foyle’s first attempt at locating the Vorga and enacting his revenge is foiled by the esteemed Presteign of Presteign, the head of the powerful corporation that owns the vessel. Turns out that Presteign (and his radioactive bodyguard Dagenham) are more interested in what Foyle knows about the wreck of the Nomad than his reasons for wanting to destroy the Vorga. Sensing that there was something valuable left on the Nomad (which only he knows the location to) that the pair are desperate to find, Foyle stays silent and is eventually thrown into an underground prison that is kept pitch black so that the prisoners can’t jaunte away. After escaping from prison and returning to the Nomad to find the treasure, he returns to his quest of identifying those responsible for his abandonment.

The Stars My Destination Review: The amazing thing about The Stars My Destination is that, although it was written in 1956, it doesn’t seem dated at all. Unlike a lot of science fiction (and even some of the Cyber-Punk novels that it inspired), the book doesn’t nail itself to a specific time period. And while soft science fiction often has an easier time avoiding this than hard science fiction does (since real science can be disproven), the imaginative leaps that Bester makes in this novel seem ahead of even our time. But more than anything it is the human element that really stands the test of time. In a fantastic world in which men can travel thousands of miles with a single thought and build monumental civilizations of wonder and decadence, it reminds us that man must still confront his own animal nature and passions. It is this furious will to survive that makes Gully Foyle the embodiment of the modern man and one of the more realistic depictions of humanity in literature.

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August 29, 2010

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