The Stars My Destination

by Alfred Bester

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 1956
Printing: July 1996
ISBN: 0-679-76780-0
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 258

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Sometimes titled Tiger! Tiger!, The Stars My Destination is one of a pair (with The Demolished Man) of highly influential and deservedly famous novels written by Bester in the 1950s. I recommend both to any SF fan due to their influence on the field, but The Stars My Destination held up better, having less of the Freudian psychology that Bester was fascinated with but that rings false to modern ears.

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
The stars my destination.

Gully Foyle starts the book as an everyman of a particularly no-account sort. Bester memorably describes him with "of all the brutes in the world he was among the least valuable alive and the most likely to survive." The lone survivor of a spaceship crippled and nearly destroyed in space, he survives for months only to have another ship finally happen on the wreck... and then pass him by without rescuing him. When finally rescued (and then hideously modified) by a band of asteroid scavengers, he cares about nothing except getting his revenge on the crew of the ship that left him to die.

The plot parallels some aspects of The Count of Monte Cristo, particularly in Foyle's eventual infiltration of nobility on his quest for revenge and some of the complications that arise from that, but it takes its own turns as well. Gully Foyle is one of the most memorable anti-heroes of SF, an unpleasant but strangely fascinating character who lies, betrays, and brutalizes his way towards revenge and only adopts more sophisticated techniques when brute force fails to work. He stumbles backwards into his own sense of morality over the course of the story in a way that's surprisingly believable, if a touch clumsy at the end.

Bester also wrote superhero comics, something that shows in the tone and energy of his writing and the breathless pace of adventure, and also in the style of world-building that becomes the most memorable part of the story. He does for teleportation in The Stars My Destination what he did for telepathy in The Demolished Man, putting together a guess at how the ubiquitous talent for teleportation would change society years before Star Trek transporters or Niven's flash crowds. Years after I forgot the details of the plot, I remembered the disorientation mazes to keep guests from learning how to teleport into someone's private home. One can poke holes in it if one tries, and I wouldn't call the treatment thorough, but it still holds up remarkably well fifty years later.

Another trademark of Bester's writing is his willingness to play with typography for effect, something that again seems to have more in common with comic books than the average SF novel. While there's nothing quite as beautiful as the word-pictures of telepathy in The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination features the most fitting typographic description of synaesthesia I have ever seen. For the full effect, you want to get a current reprint, as some of the older copies of The Stars My Destination degrade Bester's artistic arrangement of letters to lines of asterisks or even omit them completely.

This book was written in the 1950s, and I think it's impossible to completely avoid some jarring effects on the modern reader. There's some sexism in gender roles and unintentional and unnoticed slang that sounds odd to modern ears. All in all, though, Bester does remarkably well. His future ruled by corporations and hereditary captains of industry doesn't quite ring true, but it does a lot better than most political projections. The plot seems as likely and believable now as ever. You don't have to read this as a period piece to thoroughly enjoy it.

Despite some psychological subtleties and some good world-building, this is an unabashed adventure story, filled with larger-than-life characters, monstrous passions, and dramatic action. I may snicker a bit when cities get bombed at convenient moments to push the plot along, but I ranked this book as one of my favorites when I first read it a decade and a half ago and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it. A laundry list of current SF authors cite it as influential or a favorite childhood read. If you've not read it, I encourage you to track down a copy. I don't think you'll regret it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-03-22

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