Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ryan Reviews: The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester

One of my all-time favorite books. The Stars My Destination (originally called Tyger, Tyger) is, basically, the Count of Monte Cristo in space but a lot shorter.

Gully Foyle is our antihero. He begins the book as a nobody who just happens to be stranded on a ship. He lives in a utility closet, leaving each day to replenish his food, water, and air. His entire life has been a story of wasted potential: intellect but no education, strength but no finesse, opportunity but no effort. We are told that psychologists have tried, and failed, to find the ‘key’ to ‘unlock’ Foyle. That key arrives during one of Foyle’s daily gatherings. His salvation, the SS Vorga, approaches his ship when Foyle fires off his emergency flares, but bypasses him.* Foyle’s rage engages his mind. He educates himself using the manuals on the ship, and ingeniously gets his dead ship moving again. An extremely weird ‘Scientific People,’ the barbaric decedents of a lost scientific expedition, collect Foyle’s ship and brand him with a hideous face tattoo. 

The middle of the book follows Foyle’s attempts to get revenge on Vorga. He is single-minded, ugly, and amoral (and occasionally evil). He is imprisoned for refusing to tell people the location of his ship and the powerful PyRE that was aboard. He escapes with the unfortunately named Jizz McQueen, a woman who educated him while they were both in prison, able to speak only by a quirk of geology. After the escape, the two go to get Foyle’s tattoo removed. Unfortunately, the removal is only partially successful: when blood rushes to Gully’s face, the ugly mask returns. Emotion becomes Foyle’s greatest enemy.

He and Jizz are successful at liberating the cargo of his ship, but Foyle loses Jizz in the process. The fortune aboard the ship allows Foyle to rebrand himself Geoffrey Fourmyle, a man who exists only to be noticed. Fourmyle is more articulate and educated than Foyle, and with control of his emotions. People recognized Foyle only by his mask, so as long as Fourmyle kept his emotions under control, he was free to continue his pursuit of Vorga. Unfortunately, he falls in love with Olivia Prestign, who turns out to be the person who was in command of the Vorga when it left Foyle to die (and turned out to be an awful human for other reasons). 

As the book nears conclusion, Foyle starts to encounter a burning man. The burning man, it turns out, is him—from his future. Foyle is concussed while trying to protect PyRE, and the concussion interacts with his enhancements (that make him move more quickly than his prey and heighten his senses) to cause a weird bout of synesthesia. The burning man is Foyle, fully unlocked. While most humans can only jaunte (teleport using the mind) between 50-1000 miles, and only terrestrially, Foyle turns out to be exempt from this limitation, jaunting through space and time (the confused Foyle tries to warn his past self, showing up only as the strange burning man, unable to communicate through his synesthesia). Once he returns to normal, he is faced with a moral dilemma: what to do with PyRE. PyRE could potentially destroy the world, or it could end the war (between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites). His options: respect the property rights of the rightful owner of PyRE; give the weapon to the Inner Planet government, to give them a fighting chance against the more powerful Outer Satellites; or to be pragmatic, giving both sides PyRE with the hope that neither will use it for fear of retaliation. 

By now Foyle is a transformed man. Foyle’s conscience is like a muscle, atrophied after years of being unnecessary (since he could just coast along), but growing stronger as he begins to face dilemmas. His decision is to take the decision away from the Great Men. A society where the great, the tigers, choose for the many is a society where the many become like Foyle at the beginning of the book: willing to act only to meet their necessities. He distributes the PyRE among the common people of the Earth, giving the choice of ‘living or dying back to the people who do the living and the dying.’ 

While Foyle may be unredeemable (rapists usually are), his arc is one of moral growth and transformation. Even though his goal throughout the book is vengeance, hardly commendable, he is forced into situations where he must choose to act morally or immorally. By having a goal, Foyle had choices to make, whereas when he had no power, he needed make no choices. The anti-authority, pro-moral-autonomy message is one that I, of course, like quite a bit. 

A friend of mine (Anthony) said that this book was full of ‘casual ridiculousness’ (did I get it right?). Very true. The concept of teleportation with the mind, as an inherent ability of all humans, is ridiculous. The Scientific People are ridiculous. I could go on. If you’re looking for any hard Sci-Fi, look elsewhere. This is Star Wars logic, not even Star Trek, and perish the thought of Hal Clement. While the scientific aspects of it all were patently ridiculous, the social aspects of it resonated, for the most part. A new technology makes important resources that some nations rely on completely worthless, leading to political instability? Check. Ridiculous conspicuous consumption by the rich? Check (though I could do without the ‘business as clan’). Groups of people circling the world in perpetual night looking for places to loot? Sure. People cutting their brains off from their senses, so that they live voluntarily as vegetables? Yeah, especially given the universal lack of moral autonomy.

Finally, I love Bester’s style, at least for this book. He’s brisk and cinematic (making his transition into Comic Book writing unsurprising).

This book is imperfect, of course. Bester is steeped in Freudian psychology, though it manifests itself only lightly in this book. Bester is also sexist; not the (not really) benign neglect that characterizes most Sci-Fi authors of the Golden Age, but a sexism that actively defines a role for women as generally subservient to men. It peeks through in this book, given the hyper-Victorian treatment of women, but it is concealed by a couple strong female characters (who are unusual in their strength, it is noted). I would have written the sexism off as a purposeful way of showing the alienness of the world caused by jaunting,** but readings elsewhere of his speeches and non-fiction writings show a fairly unrepentant sexist. In addition to that, some of the tropes that Bester plays upon are probably a lot easier for me to swallow, given my love for random old sci-fi, than it is for someone going in for a straightforward story.

*Bester was inspired by a story during WWII, where a seaman on a lifeboat was ignored by both Axis and Allied ships, though both had the opportunity to save him. Both thought the lifeboat was a trap laid by the other. 

**My rule of thumb is to believe that fictional worlds represent ideas that the author finds interesting, rather than aspects of the author’s ideology. Some people call Robert Heinlein a fascist, because in Starship Troopers only those who have served the government have the right to vote. Of course, that makes him an anarchist for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (People usually only do this when they disagree with the author’s real views. Heinlein a libertarian? That’s basically a stone’s throw away from fascism anyways! Le Guin portrays a socialist society with some subtlety? She must be a commie-relativist-hippie! Mixing politics with reading is lame. Yes, I know I’ve just been doing that for the past several sentences.)

1 comment:

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