on May 29, 2004
Among the voluminous piles of predictable spaceships-and-aliens tomes of classic sci-fi, once in a while you'll find an off-kilter underground gem like this. Bester's bizarro novel from 1956 was way ahead of its time, at least in terms of sheer weirdness and cracked feats of the imagination. In this story, Bester has imagined a sci-fi future that is depressingly realistic - the miracles of interplanetary travel have been turned toward corporate profiteering, those who have learned teleportation and telepathy have used them for self-interested and criminal pursuits, and humans are still warring with themselves but now from different planets. This frantic universe and the frenetic story told here are being navigated by a quite strange character named Gully Foyle, whose relentless quest for personal revenge accidentally turns him into the nearly godlike figure that he narcissistically assumed himself to be. Gully's bizarre trips through Bester's strange universe will be matched only by the trippiness in your own brain, as you digest this story that was decades ahead of its time, if only for the very depths of its strangeness. [~doomsdayer520~]
on December 22, 2003
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (Vintage, 1956)
Considered by many (or so the book jacket tells us) the single finest science fiction novel ever written, The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger! in some parts of the world) is certainly a hefty train ride with a lot of fine sightseeing along the way. The best? I don't know, I'm not much of a science fiction fan. But it worked for me.
The Stars My Destination is the story of Gulliver Foyle, mechanic's mate third class on a ship called the Nomad when we come into the story. Or he was one, because the ship is a wreck, Foyle is the only survivor, and he's rapidly running out of air tanks. He sees a vessel going by him, and risks his life to get to the airless bridge and fire off the safety flares; the ship, called the Vorga, ignores him and goes on its merry way. He vows to stay alive long enough to revenge himself upon the Vorga and its crew, and thus we have ourselves a story.
Gully Foyle is, not to put too fine a point on it, an archetype. (If only more like him existed.) The brilliance of The Stars My Destination is that Bester is able to couch Foyle's archetypal qualities in a great story, showing once again that if you let the art speak, the message you have underlying the art will show through just fine. (Overemphasizing the message has turned innumerable potential works of art into innumerable realized crap.) He bounces around from episode to episode on his quest for revenge, acting, reacting, trying to figure out what to do next, and above all being a three-dimensional character, which far too many archetypes in literature are not. He is surrounded by a cast of other three-dimensional characters. And while some of the situations may look all too familiar to readers of cyberpunk (especially the large multinational corporations), don't let that put you off; Bester may have been the single biggest influence on cyberpunk, but he could outwrite the rings of Saturn around most of its practitioners. The multinational corporations in The Stars My Destination are not just big, faceless symbols of evil; the main B.M.C. not only has a name, it also has a face, and its face is one of the novel's main characters. And he's not just some two-dimensional pansy here to advance a knee-jerk anti-establishment position. Thank the lord.
In other words, a whole lot of writers today (if one counts amateurs, I would not hesitate to change that to "most writers today") have a lot to learn about writing from Mr. Bester's fine little novel, not only on constructing characters, but on how to let the art speak the message instead of letting the message crap on the art. (One wishes more artists, especially poets and songwriters, had spent the last half-century learning these lessons.)
Unfortunately, they may also learn that the unbearably stupid typographical tricks Bester resorts to about fifty pages before the end of the novel are okay, too. One wonders what on earth possessed the man to suddenly go from being an intelligent creator of a brilliant novel to being a literate five-year-old with a box of crayons, a few blank walls, and too much time on his hands. But that section of the book only lasts a few pages. You'll get through it quickly.
Must-reading, especially for the artists (including, especially, the writers) in the crowd. ****
on October 31, 2003
Capsule Description: Proto-Cyberpunkish dark future with some unique twists, a flawed and driven protagonist, and gripping action. On my Top Ten list. Read it. Buy it. Buy two and give one to a friend.
Review: Alfred Bester is generally recognized as one of the greatest writers of SF, especially on the strength of his plots and prose style. He made his reputation on short stories, but is best remembered for two novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (sometimes known as "Tiger! Tiger!" in the UK). First published in 1956, The Stars My Destination anticipated many of the staples of the later cyberpunk movement -- the megacorporations as powerful as the governments, body and mind redesign to specs, the dark overall nature of the world, even the cybernetic enhancement of the body. To this it added the standard "one wierd idea" of SF -- that human beings could learn to teleport, or "jaunte" from point to point, with various personal limitations but one overall absolute limit: no one could bridge the gap between a planet and anywhere in outer space. On the surface of a planet, the jaunte ruled supreme; off of it, mankind was still restricted to machinery. In this future world -- extrapolated with convincing and sometimes frightening accuracy by Bester -- we are introduced to the protagonist, Gulliver ("Gully") Foyle: "He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead..." Foyle is a former nobody, a man who had lots of potential but never had to use it, completely lazy, doing the minimum he could to get by, who is suddenly marooned in space with no escape. Even this isn't enough to motivate him beyond trying to find air and food on the wreck; he hasn't learned enough to know it's possible to FIND a way out of his situation. But he is galvanized to action when an apparent rescue ship deliberately passes him by.
In a sense, The Stars My Destination is simply a SF rewrite of a far older classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. It's the study of a capable, vengeance-driven man who escapes from an apparently impossible situation (twice, in Foyle's case) and returns as an utterly different man to wreak the vengeance that he was denied under his old name. Unlike many other Monte Cristo homages, however, Bester's is written with language fully as evocative as the original's, and with added intricate plot threads that make Gully Foyle's odyssey unique.
I cannot find sufficiently enthusiastic ways to recommend this book. It is one of the best, shining examples of what science fiction can be, in many ways. Read it.
on August 13, 2003
SPOILER WARNING: SECRETS WILL BE DIVULGED
BUT BY ALL MEANS ORDER THIS BOOK NOW!!!
Bester bests the competition. His influence is pretty huge too. On the avant garde side he influenced Moorcock and Delaney both of whom influenced cyberpunk. And on the stodgy old conservative side he influenced Frank Herbert. (Dune can be read as an extension of Bester's ideas in this book.) As for the hard-sf influence, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a direct descendant.
This is the first of the sf double-whammy books. It works on multiple levels. On the surface it's an action story about revenge and its costs. And the action happens at laser speed, blasting out your cranium like solar rays. Peer a little deeper and the novel is about society and the people who make it up. All the characters are archetypes, universally found and recognized. Just a little deeper is the growth of the character Gully Foyle in a manner just like how society has grown over history, from compulsion ("Do it or I'll chop your head off!") to compassion (Welfare states). At its heart, however, this book is about what makes God God and how humans can attain apotheosis. The answer is NOT teleportation. The answer is in the little poem appended to the story by Blake, "Tyger! Tyger!" as an epigram. The hand which created the destructive tiger also created the world. I believe that "message" is not too far from Bakunin. It's not a simple message, because it's paradoxical: to create you must destroy. Which is echoed within the tale with the PyrE superweapon, which creates new universes.
The single flaw of the book is, at 250pp, it reads like it could use a further 100pp to flesh things out in greater detail. However, I'm certain this is no flaw of Bester's as almost no fresh young talent in genre fiction back then got published in books of any greater length. When I look through my local second hand bookstores I find that the pulps usually are quite short. Just be thankful the publishers had enough brains to publish what they did.
Having won the very first Hugo award for best science fiction novel with The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester faced a somewhat daunting task in trying to follow up his unparalleled early success. The Stars My Destination (originally published as Tiger! Tiger! in the UK) proved to be a second influential masterpiece from this legendary grand master of the genre; while it can not lay claim to a Hugo award, many fans consider it the better of Besterï¿½s first two novels and one of the best science fiction classics of all time. Personally, I find The Demolished Man to be a more polished, enjoyable read, but there can be no doubt that The Stars My Destination is a triumph. The novel introduces us to one of science fictionï¿½s most memorable characters. Gully Foyle is essentially ï¿½everyman,ï¿½ meaning he is essentially meaningless to society. With no education, no skills, and no ambition, his life consists of nothing more than just getting by. Then, he suddenly finds himself stranded alone on a desolate spaceship, forced to spend six months inside a locker no bigger than a coffin (standing up, no less), his life of utter nothingness interrupted only by incredibly dangerous forays inside the vacuum of space on missions to replenish his food and oxygen supplies. If nothing else, though, Gully Foyle is a survivor. After about six months of his torturous existence alone in space, a ship from the very same line he flew on appears; Gully sends flares and signals into space like confetti, yet the ship zooms by, leaving him to die. Gully Foyle does not just get angry; he devotes the rest of his life to destroying that ship and the crew who left him to die. He will stop at nothing to exact his revenge, absolutely nothing.
Foyleï¿½s return trip to earth comes by way of a detour that leaves him branded with the tattoo of a tiger-like mask on his face and the words Nomad tattooed into his forehead. It is this mask (and the interplay it eventually leads him to have with his own emotions) that serves as the central motif of the story. The mask represents the beast in him, the man who kills, rapes, plunders, usurps, and storms his way through life demanding it adapt itself to him rather than vice versa, and he has to learn that brute strength and selfishness will not accomplish his goals. Back on earth, his life is suddenly of great importance, as it turns out there was a very, very precious cargo onboard his ship which the government wants and the company who owns it wants back, deeming it the only thing that can avert defeat in the war between the inner planets and the outer planets. This war follows a total breakdown of all socioeconomic and political foundations caused by the discovery of jaunting. In this future, man can now teleport himself hundreds of miles just by concentrating and willing the move to happen. The technological aspects of Besterï¿½s future world are interesting if not sometimes prophetic, but this story lives and dies with its main character. Foyle is indeed everyman in a sense, and his thoroughly human (albeit sometimes dangerously psychotic) emotions and desires make him accessible to readers of all generations of the past and future.
I was a little surprised by the degree of comedy buried in these pages; while it is generally dark and sometimes meaningfully sarcastic and scathing in its implications, it manages at times to approach hilarity. The story of how jaunting was discovered is a riot. On the whole, this influential novel is a prototypical example of science fiction at its best; good science fiction does not rely on hard science or brilliant technological assumptions. While a story may necessarily be built in the environment of hard science, success depends almost entirely on the strength of the characters and their humanity (be it good or bad); that is the heart of good science fiction, and Alfred Bester understood this perfectly. That is why this novel will be read and studied for years and years to come.
on December 21, 2002
Keep that in mind as you read this book. Think of all those bad SF movies that you see on American Movie Classics--the ones with bad plots, cardboard robots, flying saucers, our generals planning to nuke the aliens away.
In this novel, welcome yourself to a world where people "jaunte" or teleport from a known point A to a known point B. Where World Wars are replaced by devastating Solar Wars. Nukes are still implemented, but they're about to be overshadowed by an even deadlier creation, known as PyrE. It is little more than a few elements mixed together, but it detonates when triggered by psychokinesis (you think and it happens, in essence, you're God). People see with infrared eyes. Mars is slowly changing its atmosphere so that its inhabitants can breath oxygen. Infants can use telepathy. Religion is outlawed, resulting in Cellar Christians.
Welcome to the year 2436.
All of the above plays a part in the story in some way or another. But the real heart of the story deals with a man named Gully Foyle, who has been floating alone in space for 170 days. A ship comes by. Gully signals it. The ship obviously sees him. But it does not rescue him. Thus is born within Gully a seed of revenge that will grow as the pages fly by.
The book has its slow parts, but the book overall manages to overcome that fact. What I like most about this book is Bester's attention to detail. For example, when he details the history of "jaunting", he mentions the many different ways that it has changed the universe. Diseases spread like wildfire. People can leave towns, states, countries, at will, whenever (and I thought the Arizona border patrol had problems). To me, these minor details are what brought Bester's universe to life.
One can not deny that this book was highly influential in the field of SF. The playful use of words at the end and the illustrations would be an element that SF authors like Harlan Ellison would use in his short story "The Region Between".
I wouldn't consider this book to be the "greatest single SF novel" as Samuel Delany would put it, but it is definitely a classic. Kudos to Bester and his novel. For jaunting the SF field forward.
on October 13, 2002
The prologue of this book paints a whole world and time, into which is placed a truly unlikely, but unforgettable, main character, Gully Foyle. Who is introduced with: "He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead." Possibly the best opening line in all of SF. I still remember it 10 years after my last reading. Only the opening line in "Ringworld" comes close. Literally the textbook example of the "narrative hook."
The story, as such, is "The Count of Monte Cristo in the 25th Century" -- and Bester never claimed otherwise. But it's the fabric of the world he creates to set it in, the sheer mastery of prose, and audacity of his ambition, that sets this book apart from most. It's such a grand ride, like a roller coaster that keeps on going every time you thought there wasn't any more it could do.
A grand display of a first-rate writer at the peak of his form.
Is Demolished Man a better book? I don't think so, but, heck, read them both and decide for yourself.
on September 5, 2002
That this book is over 45 years old and still an "underground" classic is a travesty.
This author perfected the concept of world building before the phrase was coined. Bester visualized a future three hundred years from now that will be demolished and reconstructed by humanity's discovery of a talent for teleportation (jaunting). His insights into how this one factor has affected every level of our society are so fresh and well thought out that my preconceived notions about early sci fi writers being quaint and naiive have been permanently obliterated.
If, like me, you also expect the characters and dialog to reflect a '50's cliche, you will be shamed. Our so-called hero is every bit the foul-mouthed, amoral neanderthal from the beginning, when he is pushed to stretch his mental powers in order to survive abandonment in deep space. From there on, he uses everything and everyone in his quest for vengeance, which necessitates his surface transformation into an educated, civilized man -- indeed, only his language really cleans up. The other characters are also revealed one by one to be ruthless and driven, once they have been crossed or betrayed by Gully Foyle. Bester draws a chilling, fascinating portrait of human nature that is sharpened by dystopia.
For all these admittedly dark and depressing themes, this novel avoids melancholy or bleakness. The pervading feeling is strangely light and hopeful, the people oddly likeable. At the last fifty pages or so, we find plot twists that cause us to question and reevaluate our assumptions once again.
In all, The Stars My Destination was so well conceived that I can only marvel at the distinct lack of copycat authors in ensuing decades. Perhaps Bester is in such a class of his own that the rest of the sci fi genre intuitively shys away from mimicry. Bravo, well done.
on June 12, 2002
For its first two-thirds, "The Stars My Destination" is a clear-eyed, exciting and chilling tale of one man's drive for revenge. An anti-hero of the first order, Gully Foyle is one of the best-drawn, most nuanced science fiction characters ever. The heat of his passion can't fail to affect the reader and the sinister plot against which he struggles is revealed at a satisfying pace. The depiction of a future of "jaunting" teleporters and an insular, literally clannish society of the mega-rich is refreshing and well-thought-out.
Then I don't know what the hell happens. The Maguffin which has provided such a gripping read turns out to be a heavy-handed explosive plot device. An couple of entirely implausible amorous pairings-off are abruptly thrown into the mix. Foyle's motives become corrupted and nonsensical. Plot threads dangle, the elegant subtlety of the first part of the book is replaced with clumsy and incoherent preaching, and towards the very end the prose is supplanted with pointless concrete poetry and even illustrations. Ultimately, we get a massively disappointing conclusion to a work that verges on greatness for so much of its length.
on March 17, 2002
Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination functions as not only an exhilarating science fiction novel, but as both a profoundly prophetic allegory and a curious homage. In the world that Bester has painted, with his richly futuristic palette, humans are capable of teleportation, deep space travel, and staggering devastation via the psychokinetic weapon "PyrE." However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Corporations are still in control of much of public policy. The elite are still able to disconnect themselves from common life. The inarticulate outcast is still disenfranchised, and left with a bitter thirst for vengeance. When he wrote this fantastical novel detailing Gully Foyle's crusade to find the Vorga and obliterate those who left him for dead, Bester probably did not foresee an era in which the marginalized lash out at a government they believe has equally left them for dead. He did not foresee a world in which unskilled and untrained pariahs would take on the world through anonymous, yet far-reaching acts of terror. The Stars My Destination aims to please; it combines suspense with action and romance. However, it might be wise to look upon this novel with a contemporary eye, realizing that the possible future that Bester outlined has all but arrived. Incidentally, it is also important to note that The Stars My Destination is loosely based upon a much older masterpiece, The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas. Although, at times, this seems as a mere inside joke, the saga of Gully Foyle would be naught without the swashbuckling tale of Edmond Nantes. Bester blazed a trail for all subsequent science-fiction writers, from classical to cyberpunk. This is the reason that many consider The Stars My Destination to be the greatest science fiction novel ever.