The Stars My Destination
by Alfred Bester
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
As with the last book I reviewed, my current copy of The Stars My Destination is from the SFBC 50th Anniversary Collection, and it's also my third time to read it. If I'm not mistaken, the first time was in Anthony Boucher's two volume anthology, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, which I found in a used bookstore early in my genre explorations. It was originally serialized in Galaxy in four parts, October '56-January '57, then published in book form a few months later, under this title in the US, but in the UK it is known as Tiger! Tiger!. The book begins with this epigraph, the first verse from William Blake's poem, The Tyger:
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
That is an appropriate reference, because at one point the face of the protagonist, Gully Foyle, is tattooed with a pattern similar to tiger stripes. Even after undergoing a procedure to remove the tattoos, the underlying scars become visible again if he is angered or under great stress. The story begins with Gully barely surviving amid the wreckage of the space ship Nomad, somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. Actually, it starts with a prologue that describes a phenomenon that has transformed society, but I'll get to that later. Gully's ordeal has lasted six months, and he is almost to the point of suicide, when he spots another ship. At this time, war had begun between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites, and he worries it may be an OS ship which would take him prisoner. Better than the alternative of dying in space, so he sets off a distress beacon and flashing lights, but the ship does not stop to render aid. As it passes, he can see the name of the ship on its hull, Vorga-T:1339, as well as the logo of Presteign of Terra, so he knows it is a sister ship to his own. Why did they not stop, even if only for salvage? Gully is enraged, swearing vengeance on the Vorga crew, especially on its captain or whoever gave the order not to stop. He is determined to survive by any means necessary in order to carry out his vendetta. He is able to work on the rockets and maneuver a segment of the Nomad toward the asteroid belt, where he encounters a group of cargo-cultists who have joined many salvaged ship parts to an asteroid, as well as tunneling inside the asteroid for more living space. They are the ones who tattoo him, including NOMAD emblazoned across his forehead. He is offered one of their young women as a mate, but instead of staying there he sets off again toward Terra.
Bester claimed he was inspired by a National Geographic article about Poon Lim, a Chinese sailor working on a British merchant ship during WW2. He survived on his own for 133 days after the ship was sunk by a German U-boat, and on several occasions other ships passed him by because they feared he was only luring them into proximity of another submarine's torpedoes. It has also been compared to The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas' hero was falsely imprisoned, but in Foyle's case it is because he attempts to blow up the Vorga on the launching pad at the Presteign complex. He undergoes several tests and therapies designed to understand the reasons for his actions, but is eventually incarcerated underground in the Gouffre Martel cavern system in the south of France. A unique quirk of cavern acoustics allows him to hear and speak with another prisoner, a woman in another section of the complex named Jisbella McQueen. They plot to help each other to escape, and they get the chance when Foyle is interrogated by Saul Dagenham, a special investigator hired by Presteign. Once free, Foyle adopts a pseudonym and begins accumulating funds and the means to track down the crew of the Vorga.
Initial reviews of the book were mixed, but later critics and other writers have elevated it to one of the most acclaimed SF novels. My feelings are a bit mixed too. I recall liking it a lot the other times I read it, and there is much to like about it, but I also acknowledge some problematic elements, primarily his depiction of women. Both Jisbella and Olivia Presteign are said to be enlightened, working to overcome the strictures of the patriarchy, and yet they also are enamoured of Gully, even though he's a lout and a bully. It's not directly described, but one scene with Gully and Robin Wendesbury ends with the implication of rape, and the next time he sees her that is the first thing she mentions. Yet she is also still attracted to him. Too much of a cliché of women falling for the bad boy type, or wanting to be subordinate to men. In the beginning, Gully is described as of low intelligence, and he speaks in gutter slang, but even after he educates himself and begins moving in higher echelons of society, he retains the same basic personality, self-centered, petty, and belligerent.
The strengths of the novel are its fast pace, the world-building of the society, and several unique concepts of scientific and proto-scientific technologies. It pre-dates cyberpunk but features many elements of that later sub-genre; a dystopic dark future where megacorporations are as powerful as governments, cybernetic enhancements to human abilities, as well as robotic and android servants. Metaphysics also enters into the mix. The phenomenon mentioned in the prologue is that of 'jaunting.' First realized by the scientist Charles Fort Jaunte (Charles Fort was an investigator of strange phenomena), after he accidentally set his laboratory, and himself, on fire. The next thing he knows he's several feet away from the fire right next to an extinguisher. His colleagues try to recreate his spontaneous teleportation by subjecting him to other life threatening situations. He is later able to describe what he thinks happens in the brain to cause it, but refuses to ever jaunt again himself. Other people are able to duplicate it, after they realize it requires knowing the exact specifications of where you are and also where you want to travel to. They are then able to train others, until it becomes so common that regular modes of transportation are abandoned, except by the elite rich who treasure their antique cars and other vehicles. No one is capable of jaunting more than 1000 miles at a time...except maybe Gully Foyle. In this context, it is possible jaunting is a major evolutionary step for mankind, if the world survives the weapon Gully has just unleashed. Is Gully the new Messiah? Will he be able to teach others the technique of space jaunting?
It has something else in common with the previous reviewed book, The Forever War. It's an example of something nearly extinct in current SF publishing, a short stand-alone novel, complete and satisfactory, even if he could have expanded on the ideas. The SFBC hardcover is only 212 pages, with the Boucher anthology in smaller print at 161 pages. In spite of my negative comments, if you can overlook or ignore that type of scenario, it's still a memorable book, and recommended. The only reason is wasn't a Hugo winner is awards were only presented to magazines that year.
Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
The stars my destination.
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