I’m reading more than I am writing at the moment, and a lot of the reviews I’d like to write are stalled by what I’m reading. It’s a happy problem. So, here’s one from the archives. The Stars My Destination only just fell of the end of my top ten novels. Re-reading this review, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t reshuffle the order.
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
From the back cover:
“EDUCATION: NONE. SKILLS: NONE. MERITS: NONE. RECOMMENDATIONS: NONE” So reads Gully Foyle’s Merchant Marine card. But Gully has managed to survive for 170 days in the airless purgatory of deep space and to escape to Terra with a murderous grudge and a secret that could change the course of history…
…The Stars My Destination is a classic of technological prophecy and timeless narrative enchantment by an acknowledged master of science fiction.”
Marooned in deep space by the wreckage of the Nomad, after being left for dead by the passing luxury-liner Vorga, Gulliver (Gully) Foyle engineers his own escape. He is taken in by the bizarre Scientific People and initiated into their cult. The wrecked Nomad is welded to the junked ships around their asteroid, he is given a wife and, in a gesture that will end up defining him, his face is tattooed with tiger stripes and the word ‘Nomad’ which is perceived to be his name.
The tattooing becomes a perfect metaphor for the monster within as, even after he has the stripes removed, they are still visible when he loses control in either rage or passion, forever marking him as a ‘monster’. This is one of my favourite elements in the book.
His hatred for the Vorga leads to a rampage of murder, larceny, rape and kidnapping. Foyle appears to outwit the authorities at every turn. But when he begins to unravel the truth of not only his accident aboard the Nomad, but what the ship was carrying as cargo, the real thrills begin.
At only 250 or so pages The Stars My Destination is an amazing little book. Written in 1956, the only clues to its age may be in the gender stereo-typing—the women are all beautiful and the men are all bastards. One of the reasons this book feels so current is what has been left out as much as what has been included. The ubiquitous telephone is there, but the author has carefully avoided any technology that really predates or invests the story in the 1950s.
I was not surprised by the many sources citing this book as a precursor to Cyberpunk. The way technology has impacted society within the story is another fascinating aspect.
People have discovered teleportation, called jaunting after the discover Charles Fort Jaunte, a supposed nod to Charles Hoy Fort, an American journalist who coined the word teleportation. The ultimate cause of war between the Inner and Outer planets, jaunting enables individuals to teleport instantly up to 1000 miles, dispensing with mass transit. Trains, planes and automobiles are not status symbols used by the mega-rich to demonstrate their disdain of jaunting.
Not all forward technology leads to forward thinking and, in perhaps another reflection of 1950s, the virtue of women is threatened by peoples’ ability to teleport. Women from wealthy families are sequestered in windowless rooms, making it impossible for anyone to jaunte directly to their location, as one can only teleport to a place they have visited before and can accurately visualize.
The medical breakthroughs allow for all sorts of cybernetic enhancements, but also for bizarre medical anomalies, or freaks. A telepath who has not aged and remains a toddler at seventy years old, a woman who is blind and can only see in infra-red, and a one way telepath called a telesend who can only send and not receive. While these characters are all important to the plot, what I really liked was the freak show aspect of them; it fit in well with the theme of the traveling circus employed by Foyle when he impersonates Fourmyle of Ceres in the middle of the novel.
A substance called PyrE, a metal-alloy explosive that can only be triggered by psychokinesis, is one of the more obscure technologies, and a neat little plot device that will later enable Gulliver Foyle to avert war.
The last two chapters of the book are my favourites. The second to last because of the unique typography used in conjunction with Foyles synesthesia, caused by a PyrE concussion. Smell becomes touch, ‘Hot stone smelled like velvet caressing his cheek’, and touch becomes taste, ‘It was cold again, with the taste of lemons’.
The final chapter makes the whole book worthwhile. This is not to say I regretted reading it up to this point; far from it, I enjoyed the entire story. However, the final chapter is just a masterpiece. Throughout the entire book Gully Foyle is bettering himself; he steps out of the gutter and gains the education he needs to accomplish his goals. He becomes a formidable presence. The final chapter feels like a worthy culmination of his efforts. He transcends, if you will. He finds a purpose greater than that of his revenge against the Vorga. I’m not one to highlight and annotate a book, but if I were, this chapter would be marked extensively.
I could sit down and examine almost every paragraph and sentence of the last chapter, it resonated so strongly for me, but I will spare you that excruciating detail and leave you with my final words of praise for what some consider ‘to be the greatest single SF novel.’ While I’m not sure The Stars My Destination is the greatest single SF novel, I found reading it to be an entertaining, literary and very worthy experience, making it one of the greatest SF novels I have ever read.
A quick scan for cover images turned up this amazing piece of art, by professional illustrator, Grzegorz Kmin.