Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review of "The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester cut his teeth on the comic book floor.  But after gaining a degree of success writing for the likes of Superman, Green Lantern, and The Phantom, he tried his hand at novel form.  His first attempt in 1953, The Demolished Man, was well received and won awards, leading him to write several more, including Tiger! Tiger! in 1956.  (For reasons known, it would also be named The Burning Spear, and later for reasons unknown, The Stars My Destination, which is the name it is currently best known by.)  The speed of action, plot devices, and visual qualities of the book all stemming from Bester’s early career, The Stars My Destination’s foundational elements are nevertheless something more mature, the morals and message anything but black and white, blip or blam.

Not of the overtly simplistic variety, the ethical compass of The Stars My Destination bears more in common with The Watchmen, The Punisher, or Christopher Nolan’s recent film adaptations of Batman than the raw good and evil commonly associated with the likes of Spiderman and Superman.  The moral viewpoints of Bester’s futuristic universe not readily identifiable, the hero is, in fact, an anti-hero.  

Gully Foyle, indolent and dull-witted, is a space mechanic third class, waiting for rescue while stranded in a ship floating in space.  When would-be rescuers in the Vorga intentionally ignore his rescue flares, Foyle swears revenge on the crew, filthy revenge.  The desire for vengeance shaking him from the doldrums of existence, every molecule of Foyle’s brain thereafter comes afire in an attempt to escape the stranded vessel and wreak havoc on the Vorga.  The path Foyle subsequently burns across the universe make him participant to events he could not have imagined.  From the tiger tattooing on his face to suddenly holding the fate of Earth in his hand, the story unfolds in a fashion no reader can predict.  

Numerous reviews have deemed The Stars My Destination a sci-fi analog to Dumas’ classic tale of revenge, The Count of Monte Christo.  The similarity superficial, little resembles the other upon deeper investigation.  Yes, revenge is a strong motif in Stars, but it is not the driving force of the novel.  Likewise, Foyle’s path of vengeance may echo the Count’s step-by-step, but only in the first half.  The second spins him in a new direction, the stakes moved beyond simple killing.  Lastly, Dumas never casts the Count’s motives into doubt; his actions are portrayed as morally justifiable throughout.  Bester, on the other hand, slowly uncovers a larger ethical picture, in turn clouding Foyle’s logic of revenge and rendering a more engaging story in the process.  For a more straight-forward sci-fi parallel to Dumas’ classic, try Jack Vance’s The Demon Princes.  As for Bester’s book, better analogies are available.

If Philip K. Dick ever wrote a graphic novel, it would have been The Stars My Destination.  The telepaths, synesthesia, teleportation (called ‘jaunting’ by Bester), character focus over detailed technology, relatively bleak view of future society, not to mention the slippery nature of Foyle’s reality, all speak to Dick’s favorite motifs.  Bester a better writer stylistically, the comic book aspects he adds include vigorous dialogue, brisk pacing, loose but effective scene setting, and perhaps most tellingly, a certain skill Foyle acquires late in the novel.  The dark mood hanging over the story and Foyle’s immoral behavior push the analogy into graphic novel status.

In the end, The Stars My Destination is a unique work that has aged well in the half-century since its publication.  While written in the Golden Era spirit of sci-fi, it nevertheless contains numerous elements that defy a clean, sterile vision of the future.  Basic plot, imagery, and frenetic narrative pacing in line with graphic novel presentation, there remain aspects to the story and character development that are darker and more mature in style, particularly regarding the motivation to live, dissemination of knowledge, and humanity’s potential.  Foyle far from a superhero, his actions are base at best, and give the story an edge that later writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling would latch onto when imagining the future.  Opposite the spiffy-clean version of Clarke’s future, Stars does not portray mankind in all its glory, just like its protagonist may be the world’s hero or its demise.

As a side note, the introduction by Neil Gaiman to the 2005 printing--pictured above--is so terrible it deserves mention.  Utterly the most pretentious load of crap any writer has ever produced in an attempt to pay homage to a book they admire, it seems Gaiman feels he can write anything and get away with it.  Not hyperbole, it is an unfocused, jarring, half-finished, hack effort lacking cognition that thankfully ends after a few paragraphs.  Skip it if you want to start the novel on the right foot.)

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