Tag Archives: The Stars My Destination

Bester’s classic tale of tension, apprehension, and dissension

WWHG.” ‘Offer refused.’ Refused! REFUSED! I knew it!” Reich shouted. “All right, D’Courtney. If you won’t let it be merger, then I’ll make it murder.”

Title: The Demolished Man
Author: Alfred Bester
Year: 1953
Rating: 3/5 stars

demolishedmanI’m happy to say I’m all caught up on essential Bester. Last year I had the pleasure of reading The Stars My Destination, and now I’ve finished the other of Bester’s two novels of great renown, The Demolished Man. Personally, I enjoyed Stars a good deal more and consider it the superior of the two books. However, as Bester’s first published novel and the winner of the very first Hugo award, The Demolished Man is certainly worthy in its own right. Like Stars, it presents a tale of personal obsession and vengeance set against the backdrop of an evolving humanity that has acquired an astounding new ability — in this case, telepathy.

Perhaps part of the reason I liked the other book more was that Gully Foyle is a much more sympathetic character than Ben Reich. Although both of them pursue their quests with little regard for the laws of society, at least Foyle, one may feel, was somewhat justified in his actions; he was wronged in some way. Reich, on the other hand, comes across as simply an arrogant, greedy, super-rich bully throwing his power around to get what he wants. It is interesting, though, that these two preeminent works of SF both involve such “bad boys.” Bester seems to have a rather high opinion of these rebels:

But it [capital punishment] doesn’t make sense. If a man’s got the talent and guts to buck society, he’s obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you’ve got left is the sheep.

Actually that short quote offers a lot worth thinking about: rebellion and individual initiative versus social conformity, as well as punishment versus rehabilitation. Speaking of punishment, Bester had me wondering throughout the novel just what “demolition” was — sinister name, that. Surely I can’t be the only reader who expected it to be some sort of matter annihilator that criminals were thrown into, or some such? Bester certainly built up my “apprehension” with that.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book, of course, is its portrayal of what society might look like with a sizable percentage of telepaths among the population. Bester’s Espers number in the tens of thousands, if I recall correctly, and have become entrenched in all major areas of life: business, medicine, entertainment, government, the judicial system, and so on. This would no doubt have far-reaching effects on the world, not the least of which is that deception and crime of all varieties would be much more difficult to get away with (much to Reich’s chagrin). Telepathic ability is mostly presented in a positive light here, as a potential force for good and for humanity’s improvement. However, there is also the possibility for exploitation, and the existence of telepathy doesn’t magically erase all of mankind’s characteristic flaws. The police Esper Powell reflects on this (angrily) during his dealings with the entertainer and brothel owner, Chooka Frood:

It was anger for the relentless force of evolution that insisted on endowing man with increased powers without removing the vestigial vices that prevented him from using them.

I really enjoyed the battle of wits between Reich and Powell, with Powell trying everything he can think of to prove Reich’s guilt, and Reich doing everything in his power to foil him. The book flies along at a relentless, breakneck pace, true to form for Bester. I can’t say that every part of the story works for me, or that it’s my favorite from this author, but it is classic Bester, no doubt about that, and worthy of attention.

Simmons satisfies with The Hollow Man

hollowman1After experiencing (and loving) Dan Simmons’ take on space opera as displayed in his Hyperion Cantos, I was looking forward to delving into some more of his work, and it didn’t take me long to find some. The Hollow Man (1992) recently caught my attention at a used bookstore, and reading it has only added to my growing admiration for Simmons. This novel is very different from the Hyperion stuff, and takes place much closer to home. It’s a mysterious SF suspense thriller (think Dean Koontz here for a general idea of the style), and Simmons seems just as comfortable with this type of story as he is with the grand arena of space opera.

Jeremy Bremen has an exceedingly rare gift: telepathy. Only it’s more of a curse, as the incessant noise of thoughts from other people can be maddening. However, he has been extraordinarily lucky in finding another telepath and gaining some relief. For the last several years he and his wife Gail, using their abilities together, have been able to shield each other from the “neurobabble” of the surrounding world. When his wife dies, though, that protective mindshield is gone, and Bremen is once again subjected to the torment of his accursed ability. As his life is turned upside down and he struggles with his affliction and loss, Bremen begins a downward spiral into emptiness and despair. As the darkness within him deepens, he burns his house and starts a cross-country journey that will bring him into confrontation with other sources of darkness and violence, including a serial killer, a rapist, and other criminals. During his long, dark night of the soul, Bremen himself sometimes engages in questionable or illegal behavior. Yet through it all, there are moments of kindness and glimmers of hope, and the feeling that Bremen has some greater destiny to fulfill.

Besides the theme of telepathic anguish, the book also revolves very much around a shocking discovery involving a new understanding of the nature of reality. This is based on some of the more fanciful implications of quantum mechanics, and Simmons also draws on chaos theory, fractals, strange attractors, and the like, tying all these together to come up with a suitably bizarre and mind-blowing explanation for the novel’s strange events. To be honest, I’m not sure I even completely understood the model of reality being put forth, or if it made any rigorous kind of sense; but I was relieved to see some kind of scientific explanation being attempted, rather than leaving it to the realm of the supernatural.

Simmons reuses here some of the elements and stylistic flourishes also used in his Hyperion books. For example, he likes to make reference in his fiction to real science fiction writers. In this case, two of the characters discuss Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, using the “jaunting” concept as an analogy for another process. Simmons’ interest in poetry is also evident here. As with Hyperion, the title of this book is taken from a real poem; in this case it’s Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” of course. It’s an appropriate title, for the novel shares that poem’s sense of gloominess. The chapter titles are taken from the poem as well. Also used is the very sad “Elegy for Jane” by Theodore Roethke.

While the strange discovery about reality that lies at the center of this novel may come across as a bit flaky, the book still succeeds very well on the strength of the characters and their emotional turmoil, and on the deep sense of urgent mystery that propels the story along. It’s an engaging tale of loss and redemption, of both the pain and the wonder of life, and of people just trying to make some sense out of it all. On that level The Hollow Man comes across as anything but hollow. And the more I read Dan Simmons, the more I like him.

Some unreal short stories from Bester

I’m going to admit something right up front: I am not, and never have been, a big fan of the short story format. I’ve always believed that if an idea is really worth exploring, it should be worth exploring at the level of a novel (or novella at least); a short story just isn’t enough space for much in the way of idea development, at least the development of serious ideas. Science fiction short stories far too often come across as merely cute or whimsical, and that’s usually not what I’m interested in. However, every now and then I feel the urge to try a volume of stories just to see if it can change my mind on the matter; so far that hasn’t happened to any large extent. Short stories I really like are few and far between. Such is the case with this volume of Bester stories, Virtual Unrealities, published in 1997; I found myself liking only a small percentage of what’s offered here.

As if the format’s tendency toward whimsy wasn’t enough, things get even stranger when you take into account Bester’s erratic and fanciful writing style. In the introduction to this volume, Robert Silverberg (who picked which stories to include) describes that style as “magnificent cockeyed pizazz,” and he quotes an even better description from Damon Knight:

Dazzlement and enchantment are Bester’s methods. His stories never stand still a moment; they’re forever tilting into motion, veering, doubling back, firing off rockets to distract you. [….] Bester’s science is all wrong, his characters are not characters but funny hats; but you never notice; he fires off a smoke-bomb, climbs a ladder, leaps from a trapeze, plays three bars of “God Save the King,” swallows a sword and dives into three inches of water. Good heavens, what more do you want?

There was a bit of that frenetic style in Bester’s great novel, The Stars My Destination, but there it had enough room to spread out and avoid overwhelming the reader, and seemed more like a bit of exotic seasoning. In many of these stories, however, Bester’s hyper-extravagant manner is concentrated into such a small space that it becomes almost unbearable to a reader like me, who values a logical story structure and a high degree of believability in plot and character.

I’m not going to critique each and every story, simply because there are too many and I don’t really feel like it. Out of sixteen stories there were only five that I liked to some degree: “Fondly Fahrenheit,” about a malfunctioning robot that commits crimes and whose owner skips from planet to planet to avoid the authorities; “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed,” a humorous yet intriguing time travel story; “The Pi Man,” about a man with a sort of cosmic-level case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; “Will You Wait?”, about a man who experiences endless bureaucratic red tape while trying to sell his soul to the devil; and “Adam and No Eve,” a sad post-apocalypse tale about a man who destroyed the world through his arrogance.

The rest were either uninteresting and mediocre, or downright bad, either because of content or style, or a combination of both. Still, five out of sixteen is better than some authors do for me, so I can give Bester at least some credit for getting my interest. As for the subject matter of the remaining stories, some of them involve time travel; some are twisted love stories; some are about people with superpowers and what those powers do to them. “Disappearing Act” is based on something very similar to the “jaunting” ability from The Stars My Destination, and some of the freaky medical and/or genetic engineering aspects of that novel are echoed here in “Galatea Galante.” And finally, to be honest, a few of these stories are just so damn strange I don’t really know, or care, what they’re supposed to be about.

As usual, your mileage may vary, and if you really like short stories you might get more out of this volume than I did. As for me, I think I’m gonna stick to novels for the near future; I’ve had enough stories to last a while.

Narrative hooks: some favorites

First a definition, courtesy of wikipedia:

A narrative hook (or hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep reading on. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story, or several pages for a novel, but ideally is the opening sentence.

I’ve been thinking for quite some time of sharing some of my favorite narrative hooks from science fiction novels; but through a combination of laziness, forgetfulness, and being busy with other things (mostly lots of reading), the idea has been sitting on a back burner, undeveloped. However, I recently got an inspirational kick in the posterior when I read an io9 article about Great Opening Sentences From Science Fiction.” Some of the examples in that article are good ones, some not so good, but then that’s just my opinion. A great hook for one person may be totally boring to another. But for what it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite hooks from science fiction (and fantasy). And by “favorite” I don’t mean judged by some abstract literary measurement; I simply mean that they worked for me. They drew me in and made me feel compelled to keep reading, and that always helps make the reading experience more pleasurable. I won’t restrict myself to single sentences, as the io9 article did, because a good hook usually takes at least several sentences to develop. So……

I mentioned this one a while back in my review of Heinlein’s Friday:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

That works beautifully to capture the reader’s curiosity. What is a Beanstalk and why is it in Kenya? Why is this one person following the other person, and what could be so important about this that it should involve death? Was the death justified (morally, legally) or not? It sure kept me reading.

Here’s the beginning of one of my all-time favorite novels, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg:

I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself.

That statement is so strange to me that it screams in my eyes. I look at it on the page, and I recognize the hand as my own — narrow upright red letters on the coarse gray sheet — and I see my name, and I hear in my mind the echoes of the brain-impulse that hatched those words. I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself. Incredible.

When I first read those words I had no idea it was a science fiction novel, nor any idea who Silverberg was. It was just some book I found in a box from a yard sale. But once I opened it and read those first words, I was hooked. I just had to know why this Darival character was shocked at himself for what he wrote; I had to know why it was “incredible” to him.

Another very effective hook comes from Roger Zelazny’s Nice Princes in Amber:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three times.

The room grew steady.

Where the hell was I?

That first sentence is a pretty good hook in its own right. But the more you read on, the better it gets. The first several pages constitute a fantastic hook for the novel, but I’m not going to quote that much.

All of the above examples depend on creating an air of mystery. Another way to go is to set up a grand flamboyant atmosphere, as Alfred Bester does in The Stars My Destination:

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.

It can’t be an accident that he uses the word “fascinating” in there, because the whole effect of those lines is to fascinate me and make me want to learn more about this future time.

Then there’s the deep and/or philosophical and/or metaphysical sort of opening, as for example in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep:

How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.

Wow! If even the omniscient viewpoint can’t handle what’s about to be described, then I’m pretty damn sure it’s gonna blow my mind.

So there you have some examples of the kinds of opening lines that hook me. What hooks you?

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.