Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination owes a lot to Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. After being rapped aboard a spacecraft after everyone dies, forced to stay inside a locker the size of a coffin for six months, Gulliver Foyle becomes a monster bent on revenge when another ship approaches only to leave him behind. Vengeance drives him for the rest of the novel, with no price to high to pay in order to get back at those responsible for abandoning him.

Bester also uses concepts that are familiar to anyone whose read Neal Stephenson or William Gibson: huge corporations bent on world domination, cybernetic enhancements to the body, and a generally bleak version of the future. Yet the idea of jaunting, teleporting through sheer will, adds a bit of a science fiction aspect to the story that is lacking in the more realist tradition of cyberpunk authors. Bester also describes the sort of drugs we see often in such books, one of which puts humans in the state of a savage animal (in this case, a python).

A large company called Presteign and run by a man with the same name abandoned Foyle because his ship carried the top secret substance, PyrE, which could cause huge nuclear explosions activated only by the will of a human being. The plot basically revolves around Foyle trying to find out who is responsible for his situation and make them suffer, while Presteign and others try to find Foyle so they can lay their hands on the PyrE.

Bester has these advanced technologies, but is careful to tie them to the minds of the humans. Jaunting lets one teleport a thousand miles with the mind; PyrE, the omnidestructive matter, is activated through a wish. And personifying the savage in Gully Foyle, he seems to be saying that there is no force bigger than the instinct and emotion found within the mind of a human. The original title of the novel was Tiger, Tiger, a reference to Blake’s poem that supports this interpretation. (Gully is also scarred from facial tattoos that appear as red whenever he becomes angry, making the comparison to Blake's tiger unavoidable.)

Foyle is very well described, being, violent, immoral, and uncontrollable just as the unconscious of all men. This savagery is the catalyst for the novel’s action, and pretty well rendered. Bester should be commended for creating a character so captivating yet so unlikable. However, other characters like Presteign seem to be a bit superficial and one-note. It would have been nice to see them fleshed out a bit more, and a little more time spent after the climax by showing how those actions would affect the world (depending on optimism or cynicism, the ending could be taken in two wholly separate directions).

Yet so far as the old guard of SF goes, this is probably the best novel I’ve read. If someone is looking to explore the Asimov era, skip Foundation and take a look at The Stars My Destination.

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