Saturday, 21 April 2007

Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination (1956) (Tiger, Tiger)

Published: Gollancz, 2006

One of the indisputable classics of science fiction, The Stars My Destination is a novel which has received surprisingly little recognition outside the genre compared with some of the works it influenced. The story of a thirst for vengeance to rival The Count of Monte Cristo, it is a clear forerunner of Philip K. Dick's work, and like Dick it is a formative influence on much modern science fiction, from William Gibson onwards - whether directly or indirectly. This is a novel I have read now for the second time, and I was much more impressed than as the teenager who first picked it up.

Gully Foyle is a failure in a dead end job on a space ship, but becomes the sole survivor of an accident. After 170 days in a tiny airtight piece of wreckage, Foyle thinks he is going to be miraculously rescued when another ship comes so close that he can read the name Vorga on the side; but when he makes a signal the ship bears off - leaving him to die. The massive inhumanity of such an act inspires Foyle; his desperate attempt to save himself is the prelude to a long campaign of vengeance against the person who was willing to give the order to abandon him.

Comparison with The Count of Monte Cristo shows Bester a far more morally ambiguous writer. Yes, what happens to Foyle is outrageous, but so are the crimes he commits during his single-minded pursuit of revenge. There are no solely good or evil characters, with one possible exception (a hospital nurse whose family connections make her a subject for blackmail by Foyle). On the other hand, Foyle is not a particularly subtle character; the thirst for vengeance fills him so completely as to make him as implacable and elemental as Medea or Electra (say) in the Greek tragedies that bear their names.

The Stars My Destination (or Tiger, Tiger, a title that I, agreeing with Neil Gaiman's introduction, think is much better) ends with two chapters which must include some of the most ambitious writing in the science fiction genre before the sixties New Wave. The first is when Foyle experiences great pain, and Bester wants to express that it is beyond description; he uses a whole series of typographical extravagances which it is amazing that any publisher of genre fiction in the fifties was willing to pay to reproduce. Where authors keep up such a style for too long it tends to become wearing, but it works quite well in a single chapter when well done and for a specific purpose.

In the other, Foyle has a meeting with his enemies, a set piece showdown which is satirifcally undermined by the way that the only suggestions Foyle is willing to listen to come from the totally predictable programming of the robot servant in attendance. Satire and irony are never too far away in any of Bester's writing, and though it is possible to read and enjoy The Stars My Destination as a straight novel, the reader will get more out of it and, I believe, be reading in a spirit closer to the author's intentions, if they bear this in mind.


Anonymous said...

My only rant is about how the new U.K. release of the book perceived Gully Foyle. That's not who Gully is to me.

My greatest wish is that they make this a movie, but then I have to worry about how true they stay to the book. Maybe its best to keep the characters how I see them.

Simon McLeish said...

It's one of the best things about reading books for yourself, I think. It is your imagination which fleshes out the characters, and your perception of them. But you have to remember that your own perception is not necessarily going to be the same as other readers, who bring their own emotional background and history to interpreting a novel.

Incidentally, there is going to be a film later this year, apparently: check out and

Avvoltoio said...

i would read that book cause reading your post, it sounds good, i add it to my 'must to read' list :)