Recently I’ve been revisiting some books that I first read as part of a science fiction module at university, wondering how I’d find them some fifteen years later. The cover of my edition of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination caught my eye as it carries a striking image of a bald, facially tattooed man who vaguely reminds me of a funny political activist I knew back in those halcyon student days. I always found the sleeve enticing, if a little cheesy, though I see that in 2010 it was given a trippy makeover.
Serialised in Galaxy Magazine in the US in 1956, it was initially published in Britain as Tiger! Tiger! in reference to the Blake poem it quotes at the beginning. (The story was allegedly inspired by a magazine article about a shipwrecked sailor who couldn’t get rescued by passing boats, because they believed he was a decoy for Nazi submarines). Whatever the title, it was a big influence on the cyberpunk literary movement of the 1980s and lauded by such luminaries as William Gibson, Neil Gaiman and Michael Moorcock.
Set in the 25th century and spanning the war-torn planets of our solar system, The Stars… is modelled on Jacobean revenge plays. But in space rather than a Danish castle, obviously. People have learnt to transport themselves great distances by thought alone, a process known as ‘jaunting’, leading to a fundamental restructuring of society. Despite this, corporate clans wield great power and governments rule in the interests of commerce.
Gully Foyle is an uneducated lower class mechanic working on a merchant ship owned by the powerful Presteign company. The spacecraft is destroyed and Foyle is left to die in the vacuum of space, but he manages to survive on animalistic instinct, holed up in a locker for six months. When a spaceship named Vorga fails to rescue him, he becomes embittered and obsessed with retribution.
The book follows its violent antihero through space as he hunts down Vorga and those he perceives to have wronged him. En route he is forcefully given his distinctive facial markings, incarcerated in a pitch-black mountain prison, and hunted by the ruling classes who believe he knows the whereabouts of a deadly weapon called PyrE that could end (or worsen) the war. Along the way he befriends assorted oddball criminals and forms a travelling circus, repeatedly proving himself to be duplicitous. Throughout this he learns and grows, fuelled by his wrath, ultimately becoming intelligent and integral to the future of humanity itself.
Given that it was written in the mid-fifties, the story is rich in its scope and can be seen as a novel of ideas. It satirises capitalism, flirts with social comment and essays on mankind’s destiny. Having established jaunting, Bester plays out the ramifications across the novel. The upper classes shun it in favour of ostentatious and inconvenient forms of travel (motorcars, horses, steam trains and such) which show off their obscene wealth. The underworld adapts and flourishes in the chaos that jaunting brings. Women are perpetually threatened and seek refuge from would be assailants in remote houses. Foyle himself jauntes into the home of Robin Wednesbury, one of his potential benefactors, and rapes her.
The story also jaunts, much like its characters, jumping from place to place and idea to idea, as if Bester was trying to squeeze in as much in as possible. In this sense there is sometimes a discord in the pacing and tone of the book, a feature often brought on by serialisation (Dickens is a repeat offender). Yet the wildness and variety suit the story and by the time the ramped up climax arrives, the physical text joins in the action too, as Bester plays with the size and layout of the words in a spot of concrete poetry.
Like much science fiction of the era, the novel wouldn’t fare well on the Bechdel test. The three principal women characters largely interact with Foyle alone and principally serve to move his narrative along. They are not totally without substance, however, and do differ from Sci-Fi archetypes: Wednesbury is a black (one-way) telepath, Jizbella a smart (feminist?) thief who makes Gully suffer for his thuggery, and Olivia Presteign a spiteful albino heiress who can only see infrared.
The men are equally curious: Peter Yang-Yeovil (the head of a government intelligence agency based on ancient Chinese principles), Saul Dagenham (a radioactive ‘courier’ who specialises in ‘Fun, Fantasy, Confusion and Catastrophe’), Regis Sheffield (a pricey lawyer turned double agent) and The Presteign (a super-rich industrialist who smacks of the Monopoly man).
By stuffing his story with so many ideas it bursts at the seams, Bester is showing his heritage. He wrote for several pulp magazines (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Astounding Science Fiction) in the late thirties and later wrote for comics (Superman, The Green Lantern, The Phantom). Despite all this I don’t think I paid him much heed when I dipped my toes in pulpy waters for my Masters many moons ago.
In fact, The Stars My Destination seems overlooked by most and was out of print for many years. It is now available through Gollancz’s S.F. Masterworks series. And whither the movie? The novel was thought to be unfilmable despite various scripts over the years. Its rampant plot, wild ideas and unconventional narrative don’t lend themselves easily to Hollywood and its violent unsympathetic protagonist makes the prospect a thankless task for any studio marketing department. Despite this, Paramount acquired the rights last year, so a film may yet materialise.
I would have thought the frenetic, bonkers plot would have appealed to my younger self, but I don’t remember it making much of an impact. This time round I found it was quite good fun. If you dig classic sci-fi you probably know it already. If not, it’s accessible enough and worth a whirl.
The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
Published by Gollancz, 1999
“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.”
Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination