Daily Archives: July 12, 2008

Bester gives us the stars — and a wonderful SF novel

Alfred Bester’s 1956 classic The Stars My Destination is a difficult book for me to adequately describe; it has so many levels, and they are all woven together in intricate fashion to produce one of SF’s most highly regarded works. At the most basic level it is the story of one man’s thirst for revenge. Another level is that of a future humanity (size: 11 trillion) that has populated the solar system and has fractured itself into two political units which are at war — the Inner Planets (Earth, Moon, Venus, Mars) and the Outer Satellites (the various moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune). And at yet another level it is the story of a humanity undergoing a change, becoming superhuman, acquiring an ability which, once unleashed, will open up the stars to them. Really, though, Bester himself characterizes the book better than I can, in his prologue:

It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways. The Classicists and Romantics who hated it were unaware of the potential greatness of the twenty-fifth century. They were blind to a cold fact of evolution… that progress stems from the clashing merger of antagonistic extremes, out of the marriage of pinnacle freaks. Classicists and Romantics alike were unaware that the Solar System was trembling on the verge of a human explosion that would transform man and make him the master of the universe.

It is against this seething background of the twenty-fifth century that the vengeful history of Gulliver Foyle begins.

Gulliver (Gully) Foyle is the central character, and his desire for vengeance is the driving force that propels the story. The sole surviving crew member of a destroyed and drifting spacecraft, he desperately clings to life in the wreckage for months; at long last another spacecraft comes by, sees Foyle’s signals…. and flies right on by, leaving him to die. This is a transforming experience for Gully, who up until then had always drifted rather lazily through life. The sheer rage he feels at the passing ship awakens his mind and sharpens it into a fine tool focused solely on revenge. A bit later he manages another means of rescue, and vows to track down the offending ship and destroy it, no matter how long it takes. Gully Foyle is an intriguing and complex character; his behavior during his quest for revenge is of questionable morality (that may be an understatement!), and yet it’s still hard not to feel sympathy, or at least pity, for him.

Part of the “seething background” to Gully’s story is a recently acquired human skill called “jaunting.” I can explain jaunting easily by saying it’s exactly the same as the teleporting trick seen in the recent (disappointing) movie Jumper (and it seems likely this is where the movie’s concept came from). A latent power of the mind discovered under pressure, it is studied and quickly understood and taught to most of humanity, who excel at it to varying degrees (different people have different distance limits, but the skill is confined to planetary surfaces). This has major consequences for society and business, particularly the transportation industry, which quickly folds. And since that industry no longer needs raw materials from the Outer Satellites, who in turn impose other economic sanctions in retaliation, this is one of the major causes of the war raging through the solar system.

There are a few parts of the book that seem absurd to a modern reader. For instance, Dagenham the radioactive man; through some nuclear accident, he turned “hot” but he still lives, and can’t be around other people for more than five minutes. This sounds like something from a comic book, and it’s hard to see why Bester would put something so silly in an otherwise fine novel. Also, some of the parts dealing with the operation of spacecraft were also of the same comic book quality. However, those are relatively minor complaints, given how good this novel is in all other respects.

There is a deep concern here with, as Bester puts it, “profit and loss, sin and forgiveness, idealism and realism.” Both parts in all these opposing pairs have their role to play in this story, applying to just about every situation and character, including Gully, who eventually discovers a conscience and wants to be “purged” of his sins. He finds no easy way out of his guilt, but ironically this morally shady character turns out to be a sort of messiah, holding the key to the next level of jaunting, which will open the universe to human colonization. Bester offers us a complicated world in which the good guys and bad guys aren’t identified by wearing white or black, and life can’t be sorted into orderly categories. Bester’s world is a gray and tangled place where, just as he said in the prologue, progress comes not in a neat orderly fashion, but from “the clashing merger of antagonistic extremes.” Some serious issues are raised, concerning the nature of revenge, the influence of the rich and powerful, and the differences between those who are driven and those who passively float through life. And there are no easy answers, except perhaps this bizarre answer from a robotic servant who hears some of the humans debating some of these issues:

“You’re all freaks, sir. But you always have been freaks. Life is a freak. That’s its hope and glory.”

Likewise, The Stars My Destination is a freaky yet glorious novel.