The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester
(Gollancz SF Masterworks IV, £14.99, 258 + x pages, hardback; first published 1956; this edition 25 October 2001; ISBN 0575073373.)
It is hard, re-reading Bester's greatest book, really to believe that it was written in the middle of the 1950s; its style, patina and mood is thoroughly bang-up-to-date, as convincing as the most accomplished contemporary cyberpunk. Usually yesterday's future-visions date with appalling speed; not this one. 'Considered by many to be the greatest single SF novel', runs the blurb on the front cover, quoting Delany, and I'll tell you what, Delany may just be right.
Bester's tale is a complex and satisfying bildungsroman, a novel that charts the growth and development of one unforgettable character against a brilliantly realised backdrop of a war-torn, hyper-kinetic future solar system. Gully Foyle begins the novel as barely human, a grunting illiterate 'Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class'. He survives the destruction of the spaceship Nomad on which he is working, living 170 days in a locker aboard the depressurised hulk. He thinks he is saved when he attracts the attention of another ship, the Vorga; but when this latter refuses to stop for him he becomes gripped by a desire for revenge.
Motivated by this all-consuming passion Foyle escapes his prison, pursues first the Vorga and then the people who ordered it not to stop, transforming himself in the process into a highly intelligent, educated, resourceful individual, and ultimately into a sort of saviour-of-mankind. But one of the more refreshing aspects of the novel is Bester's complex understanding of the mixed ethical problematic of human beings, the way few of us are all good or all bad. He pulls no punches in his portrayal of Foyle, who in the earlier part of the novel is thoroughly unpleasant: a violent man, a murderous rapist, absolutely ruthless, qualities he never quite sheds. The genius is in making him also, perversely, compelling and even admirable.
It transpires that the fate of the Nomad was bound up with its secret cargo, a mysterious war-material called PyrE. But the plot of this novel, breathless and gripping though it is, is less important than mood and the sheer exuberance of Bester's world-building. The solar system of Bester's 25th Century is one in which people teleport instantaneously, although teleportation in this universe is a function of pure will, unmediated by technology. Once a person realises how, and provided he or she can visualise the destination, they can pop instantaneously from place to place, a practice called 'jaunting ('a term which,' as the critic Scott Bukatman has pointed out, 'describes not only the teleportation technique, but also Bester's hyperactive narrative structure and "jaunty" style').
The only barriers to 'jaunting' are unknown destination (which means that security becomes a matter of building elaborate mazes around your location), and more fundamentally the vacuum of space. As Foyle grows across the trajectory of the novel's plot, we come to realise that he has, without realising, cracked the trick of jaunting through space, and so the novel's up-beat title closes the story off in resounding, messianic fashion. Some prefer the novel's original title, Tiger! Tiger! , from Blake's poem, as capturing both the savagery and the splendour of Foyle himself; but The Stars My Destination helps us focus on where the novel is going rather than getting too distracted by the earlier incarnation of Foyle himself.
Bester modelled his tale, as John Clute points out, on Jacobean revenge drama (Clute draws attention to The Revengers Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi in particular), and Foyle's obsession with seeking out those who abandoned him and punishing them sometimes reminds the reader of the gnashing fervour of Middleton or Webster. But Bester's ambition was higher, and he filled his text with allusions to and quotations from Shakespeare (Foyle, for instance, is fond of quoting Hamlet, 'lecherous, treacherous, kindless villain' [p211]; and the aristocratic Presteign is so horrified that his daughter has had sex with Foyle that he falls into an epilepsy, like Othello tormented by sexual jealousy [p216]). And the Shakespearean comparisons are largely justified; this is a novel that is truly Shakespearean in scope, energy, vitality and character.
But in one sense it misrepresents the novel to compare it to revenge tragedy, even one as elevated as Hamlet. Bester is not really interested in the limited theological cause-and-effect speculation of the revengers; God has a severely reduced place in his imagined solar system, and organised religion has been outlawed.
What the book is really about, of course, is 'the imagination', about the way inner thoughts and wishes make themselves apparent in the external, concrete universe. This is why it is not only a brilliant novel, but a brilliant science fiction novel, because SF is the genre most invested in the power of the imagination, and the material realisation of our dreams. We dream of flying to the stars; only in SF is this dream given material form. SF is the key 'imaginative' literary mode. Bester's novel works as a superb, multi-level meditation upon that process, although it seems odd to describe so restlessly energetic a novel as 'meditative'.
Foyle himself is tattooed with tell-tale tiger markings on his face; he has them removed by a plastic surgeon, but when he loses control of his emotions they reappear. In other words, Foyle's markings become external realisations of his inner emotional state, concrete embodiments of his anger. He learns to control his feelings in order to hide this symbol, but it reappears from time to time.
Even more markedly, the book's two central conceits elaborate this key theme.
'Jaunting', for instance, means travelling instantaneously from place to place simply by thinking about it, visualising the destination and, ultimately, wishing it so: in other words, 'jaunting' is the externalisation of the desire to travel, the symbol that links 'wish' and 'destination'. PyrE, similarly, is a form of explosive matter detonated by thinking about it. 'Through Will and Idea,' explains Presteign, the patrician villain of the book, 'PyrE can only be exploded by psychokinesis. Its energy can only be released by thought. It must be willed to explode and the thought directed at it.' [p217]. Which is to say, PyrE is the concrete externalisation of mankind's will to destruction, the symbol that links 'wish' to 'destruction'.
Various other aspects of the solar system of the book, from telepaths and telesends to the psychedelic, concrete poetry of some of the later sections, work to break down the barrier between thought and action. This is the book's greatest theme, and Bester's flawless handling of it means that The Stars My Destination deserves all the praise it has garnered. 'The best book in the world,' says M John Harrison, who knows a thing or two about writing good books; and he's probably right.
This new Gollancz edition reprints the text and cover illustration from the earlier Gollancz paperback 'Sf Masterworks' series, complete with a natty little introduction from Neil Gaiman ('The Stars My Destination is the prefect cyberpunk novel,' he says). If you fancy owning this classic work in a more durable form, it's the ideal buy.
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© Adam Roberts 9 February 2002