Alfred Bester (1913–1987) wasn’t an especially prolific sf writer during his career. He wrote a lot, but mostly radio and TV scripts, comics (creating, interestingly enough, the Green Lantern oath) and some other areas. Sf, the genre within which he remains justifiably famous even today, was one he ‘holidayed’ in, and just about all of his lasting work of this kind was produced between 1950 and 1956.
The Stars My Destination (known as Tiger! Tiger! in the UK) was one of two novels produced in that period (at the very end of it – the other was The Demolished Man from 1953) and, as Bester quite happily acknowledged, its plot draws heavily from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Cristo. Its protagonist, Gully Foyle, is something of an underachiever to say the least; a ‘grunt’ working as 3rd mate on a 25th century spacecraft. It is only when he is marooned alone in space for six months that his latent inner drive to survive manifests itself: a drive that is extraordinarily strengthened and horrifyingly twisted when his eventual rescuer, a ship called the SS Vorga, cruelly ignores his cries for help and abandons him to die.
A raging and utterly implacable Foyle then manages to rescue himself solely in order to destroy the Vorga and those aboard her. Never allowing himself to despair, never admitting the possibility of failure, he plumbs the very depths to escape and amass a subtle empire of revenge in order to achieve his single, burning aim of vengeance. There follows a rampage (both by Gully and in terms of Bester’s style) across a 25th century filled with horrors, wonders and weirdness. Mankind has colonised the solar system, learnt to ‘jaunt’ – or teleport across hundreds of miles with a single thought – and developed PyrE, a thermonuclear explosive far more powerful than any H-bomb that is detonated only by thought. And now not only is Gully wreaking chaos across the solar system but a new war between the Outer Planets and the Inner Satellites is just beginning to tear apart civilisation.
Bester’s future is not a sane one, though it may well be all too recognisable. I first read The Stars My Destination about six years ago and wasn’t overly impressed with it – for all the talk of it being a classic sf text I thought it seemed a bit silly, a bit lightweight. Compared to a lot of sf from the ‘50s it wasn’t bad – certainly the characters were more interesting than most efforts back then – but with a second reading (admittedly done at the Glastonbury Festival, which may have rendered me more susceptible!) I enjoyed and appreciated what Bester had done a great deal more.
There’s an almost solid sense of inexorable power and irresistible fury pulsing through The Stars... This is a book that never really slows down to catch breath: odd characters, weird inventions and bizarre happenings fly off the page from every angle, like a particularly dense asteroid field, but are shouldered aside by the pace of Gully’s searing progress through the story – he simply will not stop, and in fact later he actually wants to stop but is by then unable to. I can’t think of another book that hurtles quite so dementedly driven to its ending.
Speaking of which, the final few pages involve a lot of textual effects in an attempt to present synesthesia in written form that, though they may look a bit lame to anyone who’s even seen some HTML or word processed documents, show a leap of imagination and willingness to experiment with form that was rather rare in ‘50s sf.
Why has no one made a film of this book? Aside from the synaesthesia episode it feels as though it was written specifically for the screen (probably because Bester did quite a bit of work in TV and radio writing). Forget all these celluloid Dick adaptations – since sf movies are currently (finally!) just about reaching the levels of sophistication that sf writing hit in the ‘50s, surely a Bester renaissance is almost upon us…?
What, I think, makes The Stars My Destination stand above other books in the genre is the fact that for all the awesome wonders of the future, all the E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith titanic wonders, the most potent force in this book is the drive of one man’s naked desire for vengeance, a human emotion without which all the ravening rays in the universe are but pretty lights and stage thunder. It is the man in the story who activates the toys given to him by the science fiction writer (and Bester has some pretty impressive toys), who gives them a focus and a purpose. That’s a lesson for anyone writing science fiction ever.