THE STARS MY DESTINATION – Alfred Bester (1956)

The Stars My Destination

When I read The Demolished Man – Bester’s debut novel – over a year ago, I was impressed by his command of pacing, tension and prose. I didn’t really think it a SF novel though, at least not by today’s standards: Freud and telepathy are not considered scientific anymore. There were other issues too: no character development, a rather binary view on humanity and tons of plot inconsistencies. Still: people were impressed, and The Demolished Man won the first ever Hugo.

Three years later, Galaxy Magazine published The Stars My Destination in serialized form. It first appeared as a novel in the UK as Tiger! Tiger! – the USA edition again used the original title. In these three years, Bester has grown tremendously as a science fiction author. So much, his second book is nearly universally praised. William Gibson even called it “a model, a template” for Neuromancer. My edition has an afterword by Neil Gaiman, and laudatory quotes by Silverberg, Delany and Haldeman.

That begs the obvious question: do I agree with these gents?

Short answer: yes and no.

Part of The Stars My Destination is still based on paranormal powers: there is some telepathy, and the future world in which it is set has changed somewhat because of “jaunting”: most people can teleport themselves up to a 1000 miles, just by thinking about it. Bester thinks things through, and describes the various effects this ability has on society. But also on other accounts this novel is far more imaginative than The Demolished Man, and certain parts even have a Hard SF feel. The action takes place in lots of different settings, and Bester does a good job in providing a sense of wonder for each of those.

Obviously this book shows its age at times, but the jaunting aside, I haven’t read a lot of 50ies or even 60ies SF that feels less dated than this. The biggest thing that gives away that it is 50ies SF is the overall pulpy feel – hard to explain otherwise.

And while the vibe is still pulpy, the story at heart is one about a developing character. Gulliver Foyle is an interesting protagonist. He starts out as an unremarkable, untalented space crewman, even described as “the stereotype Common Man”. This changes quickly though, as Foyle is wronged, and the novel turns into a revenge story – which it will remain for the bulk of the book. Gully Foyle’s rage is quite something, and he hardly considers the collateral damage of his quest. He is a brute, immoral character, but one I could sympathize with, as the ordeal he went through clearly left him with severe psychological wounds. So while Foyle acts as a perpetrator throughout the book, at heart he is a victim.

Bester based himself in part on The Count Of Monte Cristo. Just as in Dumas’ work, the main character finds a treasure and becomes extremely rich. Foyle transforms into a bizarre dandy, which adds a goofy vibe to the story. This goofiness is not a negative, it again shows Bester’s imaginative skills, and I really liked these parts. It also saves the novel from becoming too heavy-handed, as Foyle at first is indeed a heavy-handed character, with an oppressive presence for both his surroundings, and us readers.

Aside from his disguise as the clownish dandy, Foyle uses his money to ‘upgrade’ himself, both intellectually and physically, and the way Bester handles this is something contemporary space opera writers would still be proud of. The novel’s 240 pages are really chockfull of ideas. It has the vibe of plenty, and this second part of the novel at times reminded me of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Others have written about this book being proto-cyberpunk, and I guess the fact that I was reminded of early Stephenson suits that well.

As in The Demolished Man, tension and pacing are spectacular. The Stars My Destination is a fast, relentless read.


That leaves me with the ‘no’. The ending wasn’t satisfactory, on multiple accounts, and that framed the entire book.

For starters there is a time travel problem (the The Terminator paradox, as I described it before), which amounts to a massive inconsistency in the plot. Inconsistencies are the death of any story, and as speculative fiction is a genre of ideas, all the more so. Sloppy thinking is sloppy speculation.

More fundamental is something that also bugged me in The Demolished Man: his simplistic views on humanity. At multiple times in the book there is talk about the non-existence of free will.

‘I’m doing what I have to do. I’m still driven. No man ever escapes from that. (…)’

Yet at the end Foyle transforms into a moral character, allusions to Jesus included. He does so because he needs to learn self-control in order for his plans to succeed. Yet having more self-control than before is not having free will. Bester does not resolve the problem of being driven: Foyle is still driven, but simply by a different urge, the urge to inspire and transform mankind. That urge is itself fueled by guilt and remorse. Foyle does not control these urges, just like he didn’t control the necessity to learn self-control. As Foyle’s transformation is the heart of the story, it’s rather disappointing Bester doesn’t try to offer something more nuanced.

On top of that, Bester seems to resort to a kind of elitist view of the masses, who, if we are to believe Foyle, have just to will it to transform themselves into something more noble.

‘Take a war to make you spend. Take a jam to make you think. Take a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around lazy, you. Pigs, you! All right, God damn, you! I challenge you, me. Die or live and be great. Blow yourselves to Christ gone or (…) make you men. (…)’

Humans are not without fault, that’s a fact, and humanity is in need of criticism, but the novel does that much more interestingly in its portrayal of feudal, hereditary mega-corporations, not with these broad strokes that amounts to shouting “pull yourself out of the muck by your own hair!”

Philosophical differences aside, Bester as an author failed too. The way he handled the ending structurally leaves a lot to be desired. He might have been dazzled by his own typographical experiments, and put attention to form over attention to content. The result is that I didn’t believe Foyle’s transformation. It happens too sudden, and like the rest of the ending, it felt extremely rushed. Disbelief also adds to the instability of the tribune from which Foyle preaches his moral high ground.

The fact that an important part of the storyline – Foyle’s relation to Olivia – is left unresolved, simply abandoned even, is a missed opportunity too, and taken together, all these quibbles lead to the inevitable conclusion: Bester’s main character misses real life complexity, and is yet another pulp hero.

So, while this novel has many, many strengths – as far as I can tell, it is one of the few 50ies SF books that is still readable without your historical SF scholar meta glasses on – in the end its backbone breaks because of the simplicity underlying the way Bester presents his fictional humans, and humanity as a whole.

Tiger! Tiger!

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21 responses to “THE STARS MY DESTINATION – Alfred Bester (1956)

  1. Solid review. This book is 62 years old. Can you believe it? Haven’t read it in a while, but I remember lapping it up. Of course, parts of it will feel dated, but it’s still referred to and discussed today. I think it had a big influence on many writers. Your comments about the ending have made me want to re-read it.

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  2. Didn’t find those structural problems myself, but then I’ve had a tendency to look past that if the book whips me a long with it. It’s definitely an impressive book, especially in regards to being from the 50s.

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    • Yeah, I can understand that. I’m the kind of reader that constantly looks out for these things, takes out the pleasure of just reading sometimes, but it’s a kind of fun thing in itself too, hunting. Very impressing thing Bester did, I maybe should have stressed that a bit more in my review.

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  3. You echo my feeling on this, pretty much — the creativity I find astounding (iirc, each chapter is a completely new world and a new set of characters, and it all feels remarkably real in the universe) but the simplicity of the perspective and the hamstrung ending drag it down a little. It’s quite unlike anything else I’ve read in this genre, however, and I’ll forgive basic flaws for three complexity of what Bester created and breathed life into, so I think I forgive it a bit more than you do.

    And you’ve reminded me that I’ve still not read The Demolished Man, so I should get to that soonish…

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    • It’s always hard judging books like these, but overall I’m positive about it. I’d say 4 out of 5 stars judged in its context, mainly because of the world building, and 3 out of 5 stars as a reading experience today. Would it have had real depth character-wise, it would be a full blown masterpiece, but I guess it needed at least 50 pages more for that.

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      • Yeah, difficult to disagree; Bester knew what he was doing, but not where he was going. Not having any particular end point for these characters in mind, he struggles to give you people it’s possible to engage with — since he has no overall picture of their journey or development. It’s Gulley Foyle and his revenge, and hot damn no-one else better get in his (or Bester’s) way!

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  4. One of the first SF novels I ever read. It shaped some of my ideas about the genre. I’ve always thought back fondly to it.

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  5. Sounds like something I really need to read, finally. I’ve been eyeing this novel for years, but the very, very mixed reviews have put me off a bit. Problem is, I like to own books I appreciate and admire, and with Bester it’d be a shot in the dark – but your review clarifies the matters nicely πŸ™‚

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    • Same here, all the books that I don’t think of as 4 or 5 stars end up in the second hand shop. I’m still in doubt about this one (see my comment on JJ’s comment) but I’m leaning towards keeping it. It doesn’t help it’s that ugly new Gollancz SF masterworks edition, of which I find the yellow-white spines atrocious. Whoever designed that should jaunt into the sun’s core.

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      • I have that same problem! Gollancz’s new covers are mostly awful – which is a shame, considering the older versions they had – for example Haldeman’s The Forever War…

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      • Also the generic backcovers really hurt my eyes. Really, are there any people that like the design? It continues to baffle me everytime I see one. The new designs for the Fantasy masterworks are much better.

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      • Exactly. I have a deep suspicion that the covers for SF Masterworks are a project of a color-blind person…

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  6. I have a friend who never fails to mention that Bester shoul have learned his chemistry: at the end of the first chapter, the protagonist uses sodium and water to start a fire, but this whole scene plays out in vacuum, where this could never happen. Re-reading that part now, however, I don’t think it’s as bad as he makes it sound – perhaps I should confront him about it and see whether he’s not based his judgement on a potentially misleading translation.

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    • Sounds like my kind of guy, nitpicking at details… πŸ˜‰

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    • On a sidenote, when I go through the second hand shelves, it’s always amazing how much of this old SF got translated into Dutch. I don’t see that happening right now. Obviously there’s multiple factors at play, I guess there’s less money in book publishing than there used to be, but at the same time there are way more books getting published today than half a century ago. Anyhow, even the big names like Stephenson or KSR don’t always get translated anymore. Maybe part of it is that most of the target audience knows English well enough, not sure.

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      • Here in the former Eastern Bloc, the situation is a bit different, of course: very little Western SF was translated before 1989, but those books that were often retain a sort of cult status. These editions were also very well done for the most part, whereas after the fall of communism, there was a fevered rush to publish as much as possible as fast as possible, leading to a lot botched translations with ugly covers. Considering how small the market is, I’d say the trend today is to capitalize on international genre bestsellers while sneaking some occasional classic/weirder stuff in there or leaving that to fringe-y publishers. (We’re lucky to get the occasional KSR or Stephenson!)

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  7. Solid review.

    I’m not sure that Bester expected us to really believe that Foyle achieved the moral growth that he purports to have … that wouldn’t seem in line with the cynicism of the short fiction I’ve read. Then again, I seem to remember this book for certain moments than as a cohesive story.

    This book is really packed with ideas and events, so there’s a lot that can be picked apart, but there are certain moments that are as memorable as anything in the genre. For me, it would be Foyle’s transformation underneath the ruins of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I agree with your criticisms about the rushed ending, and the relationship Bester left dangling. It’d be interesting if he resolved those issues with his “Golem 100” novel years later.

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    • Interesting point. Still, that would leave us with a) a lying Foyle or b) a lying Bester. Why would he do that? What would that say about his relation to his audience? But I’ve only read 2 books of his, so I’m not sure I can really say anything meaningful about it, except that if you take Occam’s razor into account, it might just boil down to wanting to finish it quickly, and rushing it. It was a periodical, and maybe Galaxy wanted an ending, not sure how it worked back then. I doubt he wrote the thing in full before he submitted it to them. Explains the lack of firm cohesion too.

      The most interesting part for me was the cult on Mars of people that had all their senses disabled. It’s a gross, horrorish caricature of Eastern modes of thinking, that would become so important for some later SF (and I guess literature in general). Also the Scientific People on that astroid kind of foreshadow what Gene Wolfe did with certain parts of The Book Of The New Sun. Bester obvioulsy is not the first to portray degenerate societies (Wells springs to mind), but it’s the first time I read it done in this way, with noticable remnant traces of our own society.

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  8. Pingback: #360: The Devil Drives (1932) by Virgil Markham | The Invisible Event

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