Wednesday, April 11, 2012

1956 - THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man won the first Hugo, so reading this novel, usually considered his masterpiece, feels a bit like circling back to this blog's beginning. Many authors look up to Bester as the father of a darker branch of science fiction - his characters are morally ambiguous and his plots darker than his golden age forebearers', and he's sometimes seen as a sort of proto-cyberpunk figure as a result (Gibson's rather fond of him). This novel certainly brings the dark and morally ambiguous.

In the 25th century, humanity has colonized the solar system, and a war has broken out between the inner planets and the outer colonies. Also, people have learned to teleport across vast distances with the power of their minds. This "jaunting" can't cross space, but it has revolutionized human society and spawned a new puritanical sequestering of women as it's become much easier for amourous types to sneak around. Also, there are a few telepaths. And the heirs of corporations rule as a corrupt aristocracy. Oh yeah, and there's a primal substance that can cause cosmic explosions! Also, wacky space circus! So, yes, as with The Demolished Man, Bester piles on the science fiction concepts, and the novel seems more interested in rolling out ideas than giving us a linear plot. Before this blog, I'd read novels from the '40s and '50s before, but they were generally by Bradbury, Asimov and Heinlein...I'm beginning to sense that those three are rare Golden Age writers in their ability to remain focused and give the readers something approaching a traditional three act structure.

Loosely borrowing its plot from The Count of Monte Cristo the novel centers on Gullivar (Gully) Foyle, a soldier who spends a nerve-racking 167 days on a failing spaceship called the Nomad constantly on the verge of running out of oxygen. He is elated when a ship called the Vorga arrives, but then devastated when it leaves him stranded. He is then rescued by the "Scientific People," inhabitants of the Sargasso asteroid who have turned into a tribal people (my favorite creation in the book - I was sorry to see that they got so little attention). The Scientific People cover Gully's face with tattoos before he escapes and makes his way back to Earth, where he dedicates himself to destroying the Vorga. He attacks and rapes a telepathic teleportation instructor, attempts to assassinate the head of the corporation that owns the Vorga, Presteign of Presteign, runs afoul of a radioactive detective named Saul Dagenham, escapes from a darkened, underground anti-teleportation super-prison, disguises himself as a circus entertainer, and falls in love with Presteign's blind and callous daughter. Meanwhile, the war rages on, everyone looks for the cosmic McGuffin of PyrE, and the novel ends with a series of revelations and a psychedelic jaunt through time and space (that includes some innovative typographical games).

This novel is jam-packed, and, as with The Humanoids, this is both a strength and weakness. Many of these ideas are fascinating and writing the above actually endeared the novel to me more than reading it all. In execution, it can feel like a jumbled patchwork, and the characters get pushed aside in favor of weirdness. Gully himself is intriguing. I guess he's supposed to be twisted by his time on the Nomad, or by the other manipulations in his life, and that's supposed to explain his occasional bouts of violence. It's still hard to get over the rape in the first third of the novel. I guess it's brave for Bester to have his protagonist be so brutal - again, a testament to his noir roots - but Gully never gains the complexity or depth to justify the incident's inclusion. It feels like provocation for provocation's sake. Presteign, Dagenham and Gully's other nemeses feel like generic "men in suits" who speak in exposition. The women are especially atrocious. The whole identity of the victim of Gully's attack, telesender Robin Wednesbury, is wrapped up in her victimhood, Gully's cellmate Jisbella McQueen is an over-the-top femme fatale, and the main love interest in part naive waif/part femme fatale. I didn't care about any of them, probably Gully least of all, and reading the novel became a game waiting for the next wacky idea to keep my interest. At least I never had to wait too long.  

If I sound disappointed in this book (and I'm sure I do), it's very much a product of my expectations. It's easy to see why this is a classic, and, as with The Demolished Man or The Humanoids, I had a good time. But, as with those books, this novel did not seem to be capable of transcending its genre. It's pulpy goodness, but it's not classic literature, and it could be. It should be!

By the way, I believe this novel would have been eligible for the Hugos in 1957, the strange year when the Hugos couldn't be bothered to have a novel category. I'm pretty sure this would have been nominated, and it probably would have won, though I think I'd still favor Asimov's The Naked Sun.

Grade: B+


  1. I think you're right in that the shock value and the constant rolling out of the ideas (Bester's MO to a t)is what this novel is built upon. Foyle is genuinely sympathetic in his rage in the beginning, but it becomes muddled by his violent actions and never complicated in such a way that gives him depth beyond being a bad guy. He's entertaining as an anti-hero, but not deep. I can't help but wonder if Bester had a better editor, a real career crafter, if he could have created the more structured stories and more 3D characters that you notice other authors using, but SF was a hobby for Bester so even if he had such an editor I don't think he would have committed to it.

  2. Yeah, I get the feeling that editors before the '60s focused on pushing authors to add ideas rather than asking them to work on structure and character.