Friday, December 30, 2005

Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956) SFMW 5

Gully Foyle is my name / And Terra is my nation. / Deep space is my dwelling place / And death's my destination.

On one level, The Stars My Destination (originally published in the USA as Tiger! Tiger!) is an exercise in vengeful monomania. The novel begins with the antiheroic protagonist Gulliver Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class ('Education: None; Skills: None; Merits: None; Recommendations: None' (p. 16)) enduring his 170th day in a pressurised tool cupboard, scuttling around the remains of the Nomad, the wrecked, depressurised freighter he was a crew member of, in a patched space suit searching for oxygen and supplies. When the Vorga, a sister ship to the Nomad also belonging to the Presteign clan, discovers but fails to rescue him, the naked rage engendered within Foyle drives him to pursue its crew and enact his revenge. A series of thrilling set pieces follow, that are made just about credible by the verve of Bester's prose: Foyle's reanimation of the Nomad, his escape from the Sargasso Asteroid, and his break out from the Gouffre Martel prison are all highly dramatic. During the course of events, however, Foyle finds himself at the centre of a struggle between the colonists of the Outer Systems and the remaining inhabitants of the Inner Planets, both striving to discover a cache of PyrE, a 'thermonuclear explosive... detonated by thought alone' (p. 248), to assist them in their struggle.

In the midst of this page-turning narrative, as well as unsettling the reader by constructing a homage to the experimental novels of the eighteenth century by means of a sequence of typographical flourishes (p. 233-243), Bester somehow finds time to coin a number of the staple tropes of contemporary SF. Anyone familiar with Iain M. Bank's Culture will recognise the genesis of 'glanding' in the adaptation of Sheffield's salivary glands, 'prepared to respond with an anaphylaxis secretion' (p. 222). Foyle's 'rewiring' with 'microscopic transistors and transformers... buried in muscle and bone' making him 'more machine than man' (p. 128) predates William Gibson's cyberpunk reworking of similar ideas by some 30 years. Furthermore, Bester's description of the abilities Foyle gains as a consequence of his transformation have found their expression in media other than the printed word: it is impossible, for example, not to envision those scenes within which he activates the acceleration 'of every sense and response in his body... by a factor of five' (p. 130), effectively slowing down the world around him, in anything other than Matrix-style 'bullet time'. In addition, we are introduced to a clutch of other ideas, such as 'jaunting' (teleporation by means of will alone), Disease Collectors (p. 153), and Sympathetic Blocks (p. 155), to name but three.

There is nothing to like about 'the walking cancer... Gully Foyle' (p. 103), who has 'robbery and rape', 'blackmail and murder', and 'treason and genocide' (p. 220) to his name. For the first three quarters of the work, Foyle is largely 'Cro-Magnon' (p. 65): 'Run. Fight. Punch. That's all you know. Beat. Break. Blast. Destroy' (p. 86). The tiger-stripe tatoos emblazoned across his head by the inhabitants of the Sargasso Asteroid during his initiation suit the cast of his personality, even more so when he attempts to have them removed only to discover that they reppear when he loses control of his temper. However, just as Blake's god created the tiger as well as the lamb, so Bester, rather than afford the protagonist redemption in the final quarter of the book, chooses instead to recast Foyle as an Everyman figure in an attempt to coerce the reader into associating with him.

Cheated of his revenge, Foyle is made to acknowledge that 'revenge is for dreams... never for reality' (p. 194), and that his autodidactic quest to 'turn [himself] into a thinking creature' (p. 212) has been futile: 'we prattle about free will, but we're nothing but response... mechanical reaction in prescribed grooves' (p. 247). Whilst Foyle may crave punishment and purgation, 'to pay for what [he has] done, and settle the account', he is forcefully reminded that 'there's no escape' (p. 249) from oneself. In a dense series of symbolic exchanges with a malfunctioning bartender robot that appears to manifest an epiphany of independent thought before it expires, we are exhorted with Foyle to accept that life's challenges must be confronted 'because you're alive. You might as well ask: Why is life? Don't ask about it. Live it... Don't ask the world to stop moving because you have doubts... Life is a freak. That's its hope and glory' (p. 251). This exchange leads Foyle to undertake a final wild quest that he hopes will let the world make its own decisions: 'we're all in this together. Let's live together or die together... I make you great. I give you the stars' (p. 255).

On a personal note, this volume is the one that ingnited my interest in the SF Masterworks series. It in every way merits its reputation as a Golden Age classic, and I found it a wonderfully satisfying read, better than any film or TV series. I sincerely hope that it is never filmed. Mind you, I said that about I Am Legend too, and look what happened...

Note: The Stars My Destination was the fourth entry in the 2001 hardback SF Masterworks series (first cover image above), and the fifth entry in the numbered SF Masterworks series (second cover image above). The same cover image was used for both editions, but the former features a quote from Samuel R. Delany, whilst the displays a quotation from Joe Haldeman.

2 comments:

Matt said...

I too don't want this to be filmed, since Foyle is intended to be so despicable that Milton's Satan would balk at his actions. I can only see Hollywood making concessions to make him more relatable or sympathetic, just as they changed Robert Neville from an lay man, an everyman who slaughters the undead by day and has to educate himself to understand the disease, to a scientist digging for the cure to a disease he had part in creating. Blah!

I read The Stars My Destination after being intensely hooked by The Demolished Man, and I think the former is a more enthralling read. It's a kind of homage to The Count of Monty Cristo, but that's not all it is since in best SF form you have the confluence of multiple ideas: jaunting, the inner/outer planet wars, PyRE, etc. Just the level of exploration of jaunting alone is compelling, from how it affects the way people have to arrange their homes to how it affects the economy and national borders (you could work in Shanghai and commute from Wisconsin). Perhaps an early criticism of globalization, nascent as it may have been in '56?

The edition I read had an introduction (something I feel is missing from the masterworks series) by Neil Gaiman, who wrote that even though it is old and outdated in much of its science or even aesthetic aspects, it is still a riveting read for the way that Gully Foyle, an irredeemable thug for most of the book, makes "the world dance to his tune." Even though his later actions and his symbolic (not literal) return to the womb at the very end suggest some kind of redemption, it's the fact that he's just an incredible, unbelievable bastard that makes the book so entrancing, and that's something filmmakers would inevitably butcher to try to make this anti-hero more sympathetic.

Great review!

andrewspong said...

Hi Matt

Thanks for having taken the time to leave a comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the review.

The SF Masterworks edition of 'The Stars My Destination' does actually include the Gaiman introduction you mention, and like you I thought it was helpful.