Thursday, July 14, 2016

Alfred Bester's Masterpiece: The Stars My Destination, Pt. 1

Alfred Bester
The Stars My Destination

 It's been often said that character development is rather weak in SF, as science and technology and problem-solving tend to be the central focus.  One very early exception to this is Gully Foyle, the  main character in The Stars My Destination (TSMD).  When I first read TSMD, I was amazed to find someone who emerged  from the crowd.  He is now my No. 1 Most Unforgettable SF Character.  As an early discarded title suggests, he can best be described as a predator.  There are also several other characters who could carry a novel of their own.  Some of which are mentioned later.  

 It's a classic whose literary roots now go back almost two centuries:  the revenge tale of Edmund Dantes, The Count of Monte Cristo.   Both Dantes and Foyle were trapped, and both manage to escape with considerable wealth which they use to remake themselves--from a fishing boat captain to a Count and from a lowly merchant seaman to one of the elite,  Foyle of Foyle.  And, both have the same goal, revenge on those who trapped them and, ironically, enriched them.

But, before Gully became a revenge-driven predator, he was a cypher, mostly just existing.  The following is a picture of his character as reflected "in the official Merchant Marine records.


"FOYLE, GULLIVER------AS-128/127:006

EDUCATION:                      NONE
SKILLS                                 NONE
MERITS                                NONE


A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition.  Energies at minimum.  The stereotype Common Man.  Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key.  Not recommended for promotion.  Has reached a dead end."


In the beginning Foyle was a non-entity, barely conscious of himself as a human being.  The psychological profile said it would take a shock to awaken Foyle to be able to function at somewhere near his potential.  The shock appeared--being abandoned to die by the sister-ship Vorga.  Whatever else was missing in Foyle's personality, self preservation was obviously functioning.   Once he manages to escape,  he changes from a non-entity to a brutal but intelligent individual driven solely by revenge.  

Significant characters in the novel;

Peter Yang-Yeovil (Yin-Yang?): the  Spy master who is a direct ancestor of Mencius (a real historical person who was the most famous follower of Confucius--confusion about dates, but could be as early as 385 BC and lived as late as 289 BC).

Saul Dagenham: the radioactive security chief

Robin: the jaunte and social graces teacher, who refuses to become his Romance Instructor

Jiz: frustrated by the restrictions placed on women and turns to crime to gain her freedom, a precursor of numerous female thieves, assassins,  and bodyguards found in later cyberpunk novels.

Olivia: the Ice Princess, bored by her luxurious but restricted life who engages in various illegal business ventures. 

I found it frustrating to encounter these people so seldom.

I think the creation of Gully Foyle is TSMD's greatest strength. Encountering him back in the 50s was a shock in comparison to the relatively bland and cardboard characters usually found in most SF stories, and in spite of the past 60 years of development of characterization in SF, I consider Gully to still be one of the strongest characters in SF. 

Probably the weakest aspect of the novel would be the culture created by jaunting--I think it's a bit thin--it reminds me of many rock-and-roll performances--lots of bright lights, smoke, noise, but a bit thin on substance or quality.
While his world isn't as fully developed as Dune, for example, it still comes alive as an hectic, neon-lit, flashing world.   My copy is around 250 pages and it would take a lot larger work to really develop the culture to some depth.  However, it is fun to read and Bester's satiric eye has nailed the future aristocracy quite well. 

Bester has included a number of mythic elements in this work.  Gully can be seen as a dying and resurrecting god in one sense, for he does come back after being marooned in space and left to die by another ship, even though it belonged to the same company.  He then engages on a quest, not for a Holy Grail but for a far more human reason--revenge.

To be continued


  1. tx for the recap . i read this many moons ago, but don't remember much about it, except that i know i enjoyed it, because the title is very familiar. it sounds like a good one; i'll have to look for it the next library trip...

  2. Mudpuddle,

    It's well worth a reread. I think this is about the fifth time I've read it.

  3. Somehow I missed this book during my period of heavy science fiction reading.

    It really sounds good and I may read it in the future.

    I agree that too many otherwise excellent science fiction has weak characters. It is really good to run into a book where that is not the case.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      Have you read anything by Bester? Back then, his The Demolished Man (TDM) was touted as his masterpiece and it shows up on classics list more often than TSMD. While TDM is good, it really lacks the punch of TSMD.

      If you do get a chance to read it, I would like to read your comments on it.