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.