BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gully Foyle seeks vengeance on those who refused to rescue him from his derelict ship, the Nomad.
PROS: Textured prose; swift-moving plot; memorable main character; inventive and well thought-out societal backdrop.
CONS: A minor one: Foyle’s feelings for Olivia seem unfounded.
BOTTOM LINE: If you haven’t read this yet, do so.
That’s the sound of me hitting myself for not reading this sooner. Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956) is a well-regarded classic of the genre and it’s about time I filled the deficiency in my severely-lacking reading of the classics.
The story concerns common man Gulliver “Gully” Foyle, who is stranded alone for nearly six months in his disabled spaceship, the Nomad, living day to day in a confined living space with salvaged resources. He has all but given up hope of surviving when he sees salvation in the Vorga, a ship that miraculously appears offering new hope and salvation. Unfortunately the ship intentionally flies right past him. Fueled by hatred and revenge, Foyle resolves to escape his certain death and seek vengeance on those that would leave him to die aboard the wreckage.
This is not an original premise, to be sure. A little Googling shows it’s a futuristic retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo – another unfortunate void in my shelf of already-read classics – but that makes it no less effective, especially when Bester not only throws the story up against the imaginative backdrop of an interesting society, but also creates one of the most convincing portrayals of character determination.
One thing that makes the society so interesting is the impact that technology has on it. The most notable of these is “jaunting”, a means of personal teleportation via mental control. There are limits to jaunting (thus making spaceships a necessity for space travel) and not everyone can do it. Foyle and others have to be taught this skill; some are forever incapable of jaunting. But the impact jaunting has on society is huge. Bester does a superb job of thinking through some of those implications and how things like economics and personal security are directly affected by it.
Adding depth to the colorful backdrop is the war between the inner planets and the outer satellites. This comes into play as Presteign of Presteign, the corporate mogul who built the Nomad and is therefore one of Foyle’s eventual targets, seeks to reclaim the mysterious element called PyrE from the Nomad to help win the war. The ultimate nature of PyrE, when revealed, gives sufficient cause for all the actions that unfold in the book and is suitably science fictional.
Bester adds many glimpses into society using brief but telling scenes. For example, one of Foyle’s first stops is a long-lost asteroid whose inhabitants are descendents of scientists and have evolved into fanatical zealots for science. They take Foyle into their clan after tattooing his face in a moiré pattern resembling a tiger. They also tattoo the name N♂mad across his forehead. Being Scientific People, they have a fondness for symbols and use them in their names, like the male/Mars symbol they use for Gully.
Foyle’s likeness to a tiger is reiterated numerous times throughout the book as others make note of Foyle’s primal violence and merciless vengeance. He not only looks like a tiger, he acts like one as shown by his ruthlessness and cunning. The original title of this story, in fact, was Tiger! Tiger!, a named borrowed from William Blake’s poem “The Tyger” whose first stanza prefaces the book. Bester provides a little poetry of his own in Foyle’s spoken mantra, repeated endlessly and psychotically by Foyle as he awaits his death on the Nomad:
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
And death’s my destination
Foyle’s transformation from common man to revenge-seeker is fairly quick but entirely believable. Bester does an outstanding job at showing Foyle’s determination. This is not to say Foyle is a likable character. His violence (including a suggested, off-stage rape) prevents that. But he is a memorable character. The physical abuse alone that he withstands is of Scarface caliber and at times comes dangerously close to unbelievable, but that’s the beauty of the writing. You’re not only along for a swift ride (like in the high-action escape from a mountain prison), you marvel at the effect of Bester’s textured prose which is simultaneously terse and satisfying. There’s also a certain…I don’t know…mental instability in the narrative that echoes Foyle himself. You can see it more easily in early chapters before Foyle educates himself to plot his revenge when he vows to “kill Vorga dirty, me” and other gutter-speak which likes to put the subject at the end of the sentence. Later chapters use special typography to convey Foyle’s superhuman jaunting feats amidst an episode of synesthesia. Even Foyle’s original mantra gets an update:
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination
There was only one minor issue I had with the story. Foyle’s supposed feelings for Presteign’s daughter Olivia seem out of place; the relationship with her is never fully formed. Maybe I missed something, but I’m hard-pressed to believe his conflicted feelings for her. On the other hand, Olivia’s blindness makes her a social outcast and quite an interesting character. Overall, the book has so much to offer the careful reader that minor nits hardly seem worth mentioning.
If, like me, you’ve been putting off reading this classic, I suggest bumping this up on your reading list.
TRIVIA: In his introduction to the SF Masterworks edition of The Stars My Destination, Neil Gaiman says that Bester, who is known for working on comic books in his career, was responsible for creating Green Lantern’s Oath.