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 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 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 September 19, 2001
My first impression of the book The Stars My Destination was quite a confused one. The book, being science fiction, used many terms that are not known to the modern world. For example, "gutter slang" was used throughout the book, supposedly the way people of the lower classes communicated. However, it was quite difficult to comprehend and one would have to read the passages several times to understand the real "gist" of it. The characters in the novel, in my opinion, were very creatively chosen in respect to their personalities and actions. All the characters possess different types of personalities, all of which we see in the modern world. The author portrays the way the people react to one another's actions quite well, for in the plot comes many conflicts, which are solved in ways many people would not expect.
The best qualities of the book are the story line and the way conflicts were solved in the story. The story line was action filled and refreshing, allowing the reader to both analyze situations and enjoy a well-written plot at the same time. Furthermore, the story line does not "go with the flow" of many of the story lines of other works, and therefore adds a sensation of mystery and curiosity for the reader, and making it hard for them to "put the book down" in the middle of the novel. The way conflicts are resolved in the novel are also quite puzzling and yet refreshing for the mind. Unlike most novels, The Stars My Destination includes many conflicts that are not necessarily "resolved" completely, which is what one would see in the world today. Therefore, the book pertains to the living styles or human nature rather than the "dreamsville" we all long to live in.
The one thing that makes this plot hard to understand is the "gutter language" used throughout the novel. The main character, Gulliver Foyle, comes from the dregs of society, and therefore speaks gutter lingo, which is not at all grammatically correct or flowing, and in turn makes it hard for the reader to comprehend what he is trying to say at times. On the other hand, the language is very fitting due to the fact that Gulliver is uneducated and supposedly of a lazy nature. So in essence, the language chosen would be the best choice, however confusing the language might seem.
In whole, I believe that the novel, The Stars My Destination was very well written. If you enjoy adventurous plots and have a widespread imagination, The Stars My Destination is a great book for you.
on December 15, 2000
When I (a not-too-informed-SF-reader) said I wanted to read a good science-fiction novel that does not require being familiar with dozens of other SF-works for reference, a friend of mine recommended "The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester and he was right. I have read a number of SF-novels since, and now I can see how basic and important this one is. Here is why.
With very imaginative descriptions of possible future technology, Alfred Bester has set standards for some later developments in cyber-punk and likes. Some of the most fascinating among these are drugs that he describes and that put humans into state of very primitive animals (python, for example), and, of course, jaunting technique and PyrE, the omnidestructive matter.
In these two futuristic concepts lies the real greatness of Bester's idea while writing this book. Although heavily supplied with all sorts of "advanced technologies", he makes a point of making them essentially connected with humans and power of their mind (jaunting being possible only with the power of thinking; PyrE activated only by the wish). With these ideas, Bester is trying to tell us that there is no force bigger than human mind, instinct and emotion.
The idea is personified in Gulliver Foyle, madly driven character who has been left in destroyed spaceship in outer space, to float for years before he was spotted by another vessel, and even then not rescued from his "floating coffin". Managing to find his rescue on a nearby planet (society of which has left an unerasable mark on his face, brought out every time he loses his balance), he finds his way back to Terra (Earth) and pledges revenge on "Vorga", the spaceship that failed to rescue him. Foyle is unstoppable, and he does not choose the means to his end. Eventually, that brings him to be the person upon whom the future of the all humanity lies.
Foyle's character is very well described, in depth and range equally. He is violent, immoral and uncontrollable, like everyone's unconsciousness. However, his unrelentlessness proves to be the driving force of the plot, and a convincing one too.
One star less goes to the superficial treatment of some other, possibly interesting characters (Dagenham, Olivia Presteign), and a bit rushed ending.
Still, it is one of the best SF novels I have ever read, and one of the better novels in general. If you are looking for a start in reading science-fiction, start here.
on February 27, 2000
Having read a great deal of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, I was quite taken aback by the very different style and tone of Alfred Bester. It was harsh, dirty, and his characters were more than a little mean. He provides a sharp contrast to Bradbury and Asimov, that much is certain. While he's close in action style to Heinlein, Bester's protagonist, Gulliver Foyle, seems absolutely unpredictable and terrifying--something I cannot really say about a Heinlein hero, anti-hero, or villain.
We start by finding our man Foyle near-death in a starship that has been cast adrift in space. As this not-too-bright crewman struggles to survive, a ship approaches that could help him. However, it doesn't. Instead, it flies away. The rest of the book consists of Foyle's angry, obsessed quest to get revenge upon that ship and the people who own it. We encounter telepathy and "jaunting" (instantaneous travel through the power of the mind--a mixture of telepathy with a Star Trek transporter). We find robber barons, three-ring circuses, violence. Bester does not apologize for the violence in his story (unlike some fiction today), he is writing a straight adventure story, with all the pitfalls and danger and violence that come with it. This is "guys' sci-fi" writ large. If the ending had been resolved a little more realistically, it would have been perfect. That said, buy it anyway.
on April 16, 1999
Tyger! Tyger! (dumbed-down to "The Stars my Destination" for American audiences who don't know their Blake) has one of the most gripping first 30 pages I've ever read. The hero's hopeless condition--trapped in an air-tight tool locker on board a drifting, half-wrecked and thoroughly perforated spaceship--and his efforts to escape this condition are gripping. Readers will find themselves unconsciously holding their breath as he ventures out of his prison in a tankless-space suit, the air in the suit rapidly fouling. The novel is not uniformly excellent from that point on (Bester's "Demolished Man" is a more sustained achievement), but the worst parts are better than the crap churned out today, and there are many scenes as engaging as the first. One of the other reviewers derided "Tyger! Tyger!" for being based on only one idea. This is exactly right. Bester changed one important thing, and from this change flowed all the myriad details of his fictional world. This is to be contrasted with too much recent science fiction, in which the author starts by changing half-a-dozen variables--the future has cold fusion, an alien race who feed off of emotions, intelligent oceans--and isn't content until he's added miniature apes and lunar Maoists. What creativity! Bester's acheivment arises from one simple change, a change, furthermore, intimately connected to the character at the center of the fiction, a character whose "fearful symmetry" will linger long in the brain.
on November 13, 1998
I just finished this book, and I really am a bit taken aback. I have read much escapist literature and felt it was time to broaden my horizons. I picked this book because I'd heard it was a classic, and had a fast-paced, action-packed story. This is all true, but I'm wondering if maybe I'm just cut out for escapist reading. The story was great. Until the ending. It just got very preachy and, for lack of a better term springing to mind, "artsy." I thought many of the ideas were incredibly fascinating, as well as the characters in the book. I wouldn't even think much of the fact that I didn't think much of the ending, except for the overwhelming amount of praise this book has received. When twenty people see something one way, and you see it another, there's the tendency to ask oneself "Am I blind, or is my vision much clearer than the masses?" I lean toward the former. Upon closing the book and completing this review, the only thing I am left with is a shrug. ...
on July 16, 2001
It is incredible that this book is not dated at all. It has reallys stood the test of time, both in terms of the technologies described and in relation to potential socioeconomic changes in Earth and further afield. The concept of a new nobility derived from the great commercial empires is practically a reality today.
What is most incredible about this book is the appeal of Gully Foyle. This is a nasty character, an unambitious layabout who has a life changing experience and becomes a dedicated seeker of revenge. This dedication to revenge galvanises him to learn, create build and do all a good man can do, but all in the name of destruction.
Foyle is thief, rapist, killer, liar, and yet manages to retain his position as the "hero" of the tale. On some level we identify with this ignorant brute. That in itself is a salutory lesson in good writing.
A seminal Sci-fi classic. This book is one every real sci-fi fan should have permanently in the bookcase.
on August 5, 2003
An excellent book that will inspire the reader to pursue his/her dreams whatever they may be. The main message to be learned is that a person must never give up even if everything seems hopeless. Throughout this book the main character (Gully Foyle) teaches us that the impossible can become possible. Jaunting (teleportation) is a good twist to the story. Wish I could do that - LOL.
Foyle labeled as a person with absolutely no intelligence is left to die in the middle of space, but revenge and hatred keep him alive. Foyle eventually becomes the most wanted criminal. However, as he approaches his evil objective he gets caught between hatred and love. What a dilemma!?!?
One of my favorite quotes from this book is "There's got to be more to life than just living."