Authors from William Gibson to Neil Gaiman have acknowledged its vast influence.
“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.”
Words that seem like they were written very recently, to describe the times we live in? Not quite. These are the opening lines of Alfred Bester’s 1957 novel The Stars My Destination, a book that isn’t just highly regarded by sci-fi readers but by leading SF authors themselves. Originally serialised in Galaxy magazine, it first appeared as a book under the title Tiger! Tiger! after William Blake’s famous poem, The Tyger, whose first verse appears before the prologue.
The Stars My Destination hasn’t aged, and that’s perhaps for the good because it doesn’t feel old, like many books from that era which can oftentimes feel dated. But what it has done is influenced and inspired three generations of science fiction writers (so far). But for all this, it still remains relatively unknown outside of science fiction circles, and that’s a crying shame. After all, when was the last time you read a fast-paced, simple-yet-thrilling retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, set in outer space and in the far future? And just like Dumas’ classic, this story too is about one man having his revenge (and how!).
The author, Alfred Bester, was a man of many talents, who – apart from writing science fiction – also worked in TV, radio and comics. While at DC Comics (Detective Comics Comics, for that’s its full name), he created the supervillain Solomon Grundy and wrote the famous Green Lantern Oath, ‘In brightest day, in blackest night; No evil shall escape my sight.’
And in science fiction, he holds the distinction of having won the first, inaugural Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953 for The Demolished Man (IMHO, his second-best work but just as fun and almost as influential). In an introduction that he wrote for the 1996 edition of The Demolished Man, SF author Harry Harrison writes, “Alfred Bester was one of the handful of writers who invented modern science fiction.”
Meanwhile, in his introduction to the 1999 SF Masterworks edition of The Stars My Destination, Neil Gaiman says of Bester that, “He was one of the only — perhaps the only – SF writer to be revered by the old-timers (‘First SF’), by the radical ‘New Wave’ of the 1960s and 1970s, and, in the 1980s by the ‘cyberpunks’. When he died in 1987, three years into the flowering of cyberpunk, it was apparent that the 1980s genre owed an enormous debt to Bester – and this book in particular.” Gaiman went on to add that The Stars My Destination is “…the perfect cyberpunk novel: it contains such cheerfully protocyber elements as multinational corporate intrigue; a dangerous, mysterious, hyperscientific MacGuffin (PyrE); an amoral hero; a supercool thief-woman…”.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit here I think, so let’s see what the book’s all about.
Earth, the 25th century. People are able to travel up to a thousand miles in an instant by just visualising their destination, by teleporting themselves or “jaunting.” This has its advantages, but it’s also led to a lot of upheaval – social, ideological and economical. The rich now travel by old-fashioned slow transport unlike the “jaunting” commoners. There’s a resurgence of Victorian repression of women, as “jaunting” has made it easy for men to get close to women, and vice versa. Crime and disease are up and the economic imbalance has lead to all-out war between the Inner Planets (Venus, Earth and Mars) and the Outer Planets (Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune’s moons) as Bester quickly gives us a background in a fine example of world-building in the prologue itself.
Enter the lowly Gulliver Foyle (Education: None. Skills: None. Merits: None). A mechanic’s mate – 3rd Class – in the space service and the (anti) hero of the novel. When we first meet him, Foyle has been stranded all alone in space for 170 days in the wreckage of the half-destroyed SS Nomad, a spaceship owned by the Presteign conglomerate. The spaceship, unbeknownst to Foyle, is carrying a very precious shipment, which can make all the difference in the on-going war. Finally, seeing another Presteign ship, SS Vorga, he signals it, but rather than rescue him, the Vorga veers off leaving him to die, despite knowing that he’s aboard the Nomad.
It is then that Foyle decides to exact revenge against the Vorga and all the people who abandoned him to die.
Foyle’s hunger for vengeance takes him through many a transformation, encountering a number of adventures and misadventures – not all of them good or moral. Revenge is his only goal and he will do anything it takes to have it, and he does (do everything it takes, that is).
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As far as stories go, it is simple and written in very simple prose as well, fast-paced and playfully narrated, with nary a page wasted in dreary descriptions or dull exposition. There is killing, time travel, spying, anger, rage, telepathy, torture, capture, shifting identities, yoga, Foyle getting his whole face tattooed with a hideous mask of a tiger’s face, and a host of unlikeable characters. What’s not to like? And all this in just about 270-odd pages!
But weaved well into the story’s fabric are all the elements that would much later become trends, in real life or in science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Presteign, his conglomerate, and industrial clan anticipate William Gibson’s zaibatsus. Bester’s take on capitalism again anticipates many motifs of cyberpunk sci-fi where every aspect of life lies under the shadow of large corporations. Much before 1980s sci-fi would produce characters augmented by high-tech implants, The Star My Destination’s Foyle – over the course of the story – has much of his body replaced by mechanical and electronic parts. The novel does make political statements, but nothing so overt that it would get in the way of a good yarn.
In 2011, when The Guardian asked a few leading SF writers to name their favourite SF novels, The Stars My Destination was the only book chosen by two different authors – Michael Moorcock, who said that it “contains everything I came to look for in imaginative fiction,’ and the man most people identify cyberpunk with, William Gibson himself, who called it “perfectly surefooted, elegantly pulpy, dizzying in its pace and sweep”. To list out all the other great things that many of Alfred Bester’s peers and SF authors since have said about The Stars My Destination would take up a couple of hundred words more, but even without that, by now I hope you’ve decided to read it, and if you have already, re-read it to experience again the fun you had reading it the first time.
So head on over, dear reader, to your favourite bookstore at the earliest — or if you prefer to say ‘the online store’s my destination’, that’s good too. And once you do read, let us know what you thought of it. You can also share any other thoughts or suggestions that you may have in the comments section below, or by tweeting to us with #NWWonFD. You can also leave a comment on the FactorDaily Facebook page.
Happy reading! And live long and prosper.