The Stars My Destination

July 5, 2014
Alfred Bester

Adrift in space, the burnt-out hulk of the Nomad is just one piece of collateral damage in the first Solar War. It has a single survivor: Gulliver "Gully" Foyle, an ambitionless, illiterate, none-too-bright unskilled maintenance crewman who nonetheless manages to keep himself alive for six months using the sad remains of the life support system in a tool locker. When a passing vessel - the Vorga - clearly receives his distress broadcast and then proceeds to leave him to die, something in him snaps, and something else awakens. Driven by an all-consuming thirst for revenge, he manages to propel the hulk into the Asteroid Belt. This begins his long, brutal journey back to civilization.

Inspired both by Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo and by a National Geographic story about a shipwrecked World War II-era Philippine sailor (who survived for months on a raft, watching potential rescuers pass him by for fear that he was a decoy used by German submarines), Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination is a strange combination of a revenge drama, a bildungsroman and detective story. It's rightly considered a classic of science fiction. Although written in 1956, it's unmistakably cyberpunk, with all the usual trappings of a cyberpunk story: A low-life anti-hero for a protagonist, all-powerful megacorporations, a desperate criminal social underbelly, mental hospitals taking the role of prisons, body-invading technology and cyborgs. I must stress that this was written before the term cyborg was even coined.

In fact, both Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have acknowledged that this story was one of their main inspirations when they took part in founding cyberpunk literature.

I enjoyed the conceit Bester used to safeguard against having his lack of technological foresight turn the book obviously dated: Old-school communication and transportation technology are fashion statements among the rich, so the fact that the eccentric owner of a large corporation has an ancient telephone with a manually operated switchboard isn't out of place in-universe.

The plot itself was delightfully twisty, intrigue-filled and complex - even if the protagonist is a simple man driven by his simple imperative of revenge. Foyle is nothing like a typical 1950's-era sf hero. Rather than being a handsome, intelligent, middle-class moral All-American Square-Jawed Hero, he's a disfigured, dim-witted, uneducated and brutish lumpenproletarian. The events of the story awakens in him his full potential, and watching his character growth was an absolute thrill - albeit, given some of his more reprehensible actions, not always a pleasure. Throughout the story, he grows from a violent, murderous rapist and thug into an educated, Machiavellian, manipulative and resourceful antihero - and finally, into a conscientious and almost altruistic figure.

I need to stress once more that Foyle, while our protagonist, is decidedly not a hero. One of the reasons that I consider this book a masterpiece is the fact that even though Foyle is a reprehensible asshole, he's also an extremely compelling character, at some points even admirable.

The rest of the cast of characters includes the eccentric head of a robber-baron megacorporation, a one-way telepath who can broadcast thoughts but not read them, a radioactive "hot" scientist who kills everything he touches, a Confucian intelligence officer, a female criminal mastermind in an oppressively patriarchal Neo-Victorian society, a 70-year-old child and a bizarre colony of Cargo Cult Scientists. The sheer amount of weirdness in the characters is masterfully employed to make them all the more compelling.

The only aspect I really disliked was the jaunte ability; the ability of natural, unmodified humans within the story to teleport (although only planetside, and only with limited range) solely through mental exertion. Bester often includes paranormal abilities in his stories, and I generally don't like it. I've always found the use of psionics in sf distracting, essentially turning it into "space fantasy". However, even though I didn't like the jaunting (or the telepathic abilities), I must admit that they were done really well. There's a reasonably convincing projection of the kind of social and technological consequences such powers would have, which is something I usually find sorely lacking in sf stories that involve them.

Highly, highly recommended. I inhaled the entire book in a single sitting, finding it nearly impossible to put down until I was done.

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