Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Middle Shelf Selection: Alfred Bester’s 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.
Science fiction and I have a rocky relationship. When I was young, the genre wooed me with giant mechs stomping across a post-apocalyptic Europe and a 1926 Midwestern American town mysteriously appearing on Mars as a trap set for unwary spacemen. Once I grew up, though, SF shifted from a lover to a pedant, peppering me with overlong descriptions of extraterrestrial terraforming cut with depictions of socialist utopias or space operas every bit as dedicated to genderqueer theory as to star-fighter sorties. Sure, scientific detail and diverse ideologies are all game. But what happened to the compelling storytelling, the universal themes, genre particulars serving as a tale's garnish rather than the main meal? A few contemporary SF works manage to synthesize these elements into an engaging compound, yet I often find myself reaching for another genre I want to unwind. Often—but not always. When science fiction simply must suffice, I’ll always have Alfred Bester's classic The Stars My Destination.
He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind merged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. Then he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered: “What’s a matter, me? Help, you goddamn gods! Help, is all.”

Blasphemy came easily to him: it was half his speech, all his life.
In the 24th century, a new form of travel has arisen, shaking society to its core. Not faster-than-light travel, mind you. Even though mankind has settled every habitable planet and satellite in the solar system, breaking the 3.00 x 10^8 meters-per-second barrier has thus far proven impossible. But jaunting is another matter altogether. This method of movement took its name from a researcher called (appropriately enough) Jaunte who mysteriously teleported himself across a room by the power of mere thought while trying to escape a laboratory fire. It seems that almost everyone has the potential to mentally traverse various distances instantaneously. Of course, jaunting comes with its own peculiar rules. Concussions and lobotomies short circuit a subject’s innate ability, and one has to mentally envision the place to which he wants to jaunt, meaning that he needs to have visited it at least once. Also, no one has ever managed to successfully traverse jaunt through space. This final point is quite the frustration for Gulliver Foyle, Mechanic’s Mate 3rd class upon the S.S. Nomad. The Nomad became caught in the crossfire of a slowly swelling war between the Inner Planets and Outer Satellites, and Foyle alone managed to survive by secreting himself away inside a coffin-sized storage closet, the only air-tight area on the ship. Six months have passed, death creeping ever closer as he scavenges amongst the vacuum-exposed wreckage for supplies. Then the impossible occurs: Another ship, the S.S. Vorga, appears, pausing only as it draws near the Nomad and Foyle—and then passing him by completely. Suddenly, Foyle is reborn, metamorphosisized from a stubbornly surviving dullard to a creature bent entirely on revenge. He’ll find and murder those responsible for leaving him to rot in deep space, even if it means bringing a broken rocket back to life.
“We are The Scientific People,” J♂seph said. “I am J♂seph; these are my brethren.”

He gestured. Foyle gazed at the grinning crowd surrounding his litter. All faces were tattooed into devil masks; all brows had names blazoned across them.

“How long did you drift?” J♂seph asked.

Vorga,” Foyle mumbled.

“You are the first to arrive alive in fifty years. You are a puissant man. Very. Arrival of the fittest in the doctrine of Holy Darwin. Most scientific.”
I suspect that the style of The Stars My Destination will seem a bit archaic to most contemporary readers. Bumpy cadences and the occasional sweeping sentimentality hearken back to the golden age of science fiction, although Bester typically writes with more grit and verve than the authors associated with that movement. His speculations and pacing are also wilder, one outlandish image bumping up against another. That’s part of the reason why I love him. Sure, he’ll reserve a few paragraphs for explaining how to draw down fuel in zero-g using centrifugal force or detail the cognitive niceties of attempting to shock schizophrenics out of their private manias. But he never stays there—or anywhere—for long. The plot and characters almost always stay in fifth gear, both as odd as they are engaging. The descendants of asteroid-marooned researchers descend into a bestial cult based not on any recognized religion, but rather on the scientific method. Indeed, organized religion has been driven underground, and depictions of various liturgies are every bit as scandalous as the rankest pornography. A fission blast has turned a scientist into an asymptomatic radiation carrier, his mere presence blighting any nearby vegetation. Rogue physicians manufacture surgical monstrosities for freak shows, a commune of space ascetics voluntarily mutilate their central nervous systems, and the quite literally high-flying finale bends space and time itself while visually depicting synesthesia on the page.
That operation had cost Foyle a ¢r200,000 bribe to the chief surgeon of the Mars Commando Brigade and had transformed him into an extraordinary fighting machine. Every nerve plexus had been rewired, microscopic transistors and transformers had been buried in muscle and bone, a minute platinum outlet showed at the base of his spine. To this Foyle affixed a power pack the size of a pea and switched it on. His body began an internal electronic vibration that was almost mechanical.
In addition to all that, pundits typically claim that The Stars My Destination is sort of a prototypical cyberpunk book, and they have a point. In his quest for revenge, Foyle undergoes bodily modifications that call to mind William Gibson’s street samurai, and C-suite executives have their fingers in affairs of both national and cosmic importance. But the comparison starts to seem strained as the book unspools. Stars has a broad reach, one much grander than the potboiler plots of most cyberpunk stories, and Bester’s seemingly civil-libertarian critique of centralized power moves beyond big business to also encompass government. The end of Foyle’s adventure finds him transformed into sort of a radical populist, one with such glowing faith in humanity’s potential that it makes sentimental old Ray Bradbury seem almost like a misanthropist. Such a sanguine tone hardly matches the rest of the book, but I don’t really mind. Bester understood how to steer scientific detail and far-flung imaginings toward something higher. He aimed for the stars—and his course stayed true.
If you want to read The Stars My Destination, avoid the most recent edition from iPicturebooks like the plague. An amateurish cover, dull typeface, and numerous grammatical errors render it downright shameful. Seek out a used copy of the far better 1996 Vintage edition.


Daniel said...


Loren Eaton said...


Let me know what you think! Bester's The Demolished Man is arguably better in its early sections, but it falls into some starry-eyed Freudianism in the end, which ruined it for me.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I read this back when I was a teen, in one of the groovy 1950s or 1960s editions. I can almost recall the cover art. Almost. I don't remember much about the novel, but everything you mention is familiar. I should find an old copy and read it again.

Loren Eaton said...

Given the glory of those old editions, the current in-print version is truly shameful. Really, I wanted to throw it across the room. Still a stupendous book, though.