Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Stars My Destination


             Before this book, I didn't have a high opinion of Alfred Bester. The one book I'd read by him, The Demolished Man, came highly-lauded, but failed to capture my attention, and between a plot I was sure I'd already read before and a narrative structure that fell apart with the protagonist, I just couldn't get into it. It had some great ideas, don't get me wrong, people have been using that "earworm beats telepathy" gimmick for well over the fifty years since the book initially came out. But other than some fantastic ideas, Bester was kind of just one of those people I didn't get. 

                        That was, of course, until I was suckered in again by two things. First, that Bester is one of the originators of the "New Wave" science fiction movement, a movement that tried to merge lit-fic with genre fiction with a lot of great success*. Second, that out of all the people who have told me about this book, only Ellis has ever told me anything bad about it, and even then, it was a matter of taste. We'll get to that matter further down the page. So, because I found a free full-text version (sadly without the weird typographical experimentation) and it had been recommended to me enough times, as well as being (along with Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, and The Space Merchants among others) a kind of proto-cyberpunk book that kickstarted several genres and conventions now used today**. So, with nothing better to do, I sat down to read it, since it was easy enough to get my hands on and keep coming back to. 

                          And my verdict is, we need more books like The Stars My Destination. It's a whirlwind of science fiction, some interesting ideas about obsolete technology, and more than that, it's a fable about human potential the likes of which no one's managed to replicate. Buy this book. Buy it for your friends. Buy it for your neighbors. Buy it for your enemies, who knows, maybe they'll start to appreciate you more. Not reading The Stars My Destination, this strange cyberpunk/horror/soft-SF novel, is a great disservice. Even if you hate it, it at least deserves your attention for the time you'd take to read it. 

"I kill you, Vorga. I kill you filthy."
- Gully Foyle

"Got a million in you, but spend pennies."
- Gulliver Foyle

                                  For your consideration, one Mechanic's Mate Third-Class Gulliver "Gully" Foyle. Gully is a barely-sentient drone on board the star freighter Nomad, and its sole survivor after it was scuttled. He doesn't remember the scuttling, as being a barely sentient drone unable to communicate in more than broken English doesn't give him the memory capacity for much more than his daily routine inside the airtight locker he makes his home, the locker that will eventually become his grave. Fortunately, on one of his excursions, Foyle sees a ship, the Vorga-T:1339. So he launches a flare barrage from the Nomad to signal the Vorga, in the hopes that he'll be picked up...

 ...and the Vorga ignores him entirely. Needless to say, Gully Foyle is not happy with this development. 

                                    That unhappiness galvanizes him into action, and he jury-rigs the Nomad's remaining systems to fly somewhere. Anywhere. "Anywhere" turns out to be a cargo cult known as the Scientific People, who tattoo a fearsome devil-tiger design on to Foyle's face and turn his ship into a living module with the raw materials from an asteroid. Foyle, however, has other plans, plans involving Vorga-T:1339. Plans that involve making whoever passed him by hurt for an eternity. Plans that mean very bad things for an entire conspiracy that didn't realize when the Nomad got passed up, they made a very powerful enemy. One who doesn't care how much power they have. 

                                     What follows is a surreal rampage around the galaxy as Foyle tangles with a corporate hatchet-man who emanates lethal radiation, the intelligence services of Earth, and the formidable starship company known as Presteign. But there is more going on here than Foyle and his one-man campaign, and more than anyone-- even the major players like Presteign-- could possibly know exists. In the end, Foyle's ham-fisted attempt to "kill Vorga filthy" might threaten to engulf the galaxy and possibly the whole universe. It will take careful control, and learning skills Foyle never knew he had to survive what he sets in motion. And even then, nothing is certain.

                                   The Stars My Destination is especially notable because, well, you see that plot up there? That's what I could tell you without spoilers. That gets you about an eighth of the way through the book. After that, I wouldn't dare give away the bounteous pageant of insanity that comprises the plot. It's also notable because Gully Foyle's entire journey mirrors the ascent of man, more or less. He begins as a thing, not even considered a person, whiling away his time in what is little more than a cave, hunting and gathering. By the time he reaches Earth, he's gone through the tribal civilization phase and becomes what might be termed a "sapient brute". By the end of the novel, he's progressed to transhumanity and delivers a speech to the people of earth that essentially reads as an angered lecture to the reader themselves, that all humanity needs to do to take the next leap is to believe in themselves and try to figure out how to make it. It's a growled monologue to a group of people who have stagnated so much that they've obsessed over obsolete technology and methods instead of moving themselves ever forward and pushing themselves. 

                                    Also, for a "space adventure" story, Gully Foyle is an odd character. He spends most of the book as a kind of antihero, something of a flaunted convention considering a lot of the heroes of the time period were pretty stand-up square-jaw types. It was a holdover from the "space western" years, where authors would basically take their Western stories, and because there was a bigger demand for stories about space, dress them up with rayguns and asteroid ranching. They did the same with some detective stories and other concepts, though the most lifted stories were always the western ones. Gully Foyle is not anyone you could call a "good guy". 

                                    Despite being somewhat sympathetic in that he's continually thrown into situations beyond all semblance of control, he rather eagerly tortures at least three people, rapes two women, and at a certain point decides it's best if he throws a whole group of people who just helped him under the bus so he can get an important piece of equipment, equipment he doesn't even hold on to very long. Even when he learns to talk properly, he's fairly bestial. In fact, it says something that the villains are actually closer to lawful good in the book-- the Presteign Clan operates mostly above the board and acts only in its own defense, Central Intelligence does some terrible things, true, but they and the conspiracy they collude with only have the planet's best interests at heart. Well-- at first, anyway. In any other book, Foyle would be a monster, some kind of fugitive. In this, however, it's exactly the opposite. Well, he's still a fugitive and all, but it's the well-scrubbed lawful-good authority figures who are the villains, and the violent, bestial "tiger" who represents mankind's best hope. And, actually, despite what I told you about him being violent, bestial, and base, he's surprisingly sympathetic. 

              And, given all of that, Bester manages to write him as something of a hero. And it works. Because Foyle is pretty much unable to interact with the world in a way that doesn't involve violence, and has to learn control when it puts him between freedom and being stuck in a mental institution with some kind of disorder. It works because he never really sheds that animal instinct, even after he learns to become civilized. It takes him a long time to learn control, and it's kind of another deconstruction of the hero types. Foyle doesn't learn all he needs to know, he has to make it up as he goes along, and frequently, he gets it just as wrong as he does right. When he finally sheds the cult tattoos, the skin imprints are left, so he has to spend most of the book learning self-control to keep the channels from refilling with blood and masking his face so everyone knows it's him.  It's a slow, painful process, but so's Foyle's journey towards civilization, and the two dovetail nicely at the end of the novel.

                 Bester also does a great job with building his future world. The Earth of the future is embroiled in a one-sided war with the asteroid belt, which is mostly populated by cults and asteroid farmers (you see?). The financial world is dominated by "corporate clans", with the one we learn the most about being the Presteign clan, who build spaceships (including the hated Vorga-T:1339). There also isn't much separation between the clans and the government, as the Central Intelligence group meets regularly with Presteign of Presteign. People get extensive cosmetic surgery to become corporate mascots and are obsessed with obsolescence, and the biggest change to the world is that, through experiments on prisoners, humanity has discovered the ability to "jaunte" from place to place, rendering all transportation technology save for spaceships obsolete. Space is difficult to jaunte to, though at the beginning of the book it isn't known why, and prisoners are given drugs to confuse their senses so that jaunting from place to place is impossible. This doesn't stop some of them, who decide to try a risky and almost always fatal maneuver known as the "blue jaunte", a kind of jaunte without the spatial awareness and coordinates needed to jaunte. It's literally just to "anywhere". 

                  But what makes this world of megacorporations and psionics more real, more solid, more able to do things, is that this is all brought up commonplace. It's not in extracts, or stories, it's in half-remembered anecdotes and colloquial information. All of the stuff I just mentioned is brought up second-hand. And offhand. You won't hear the history of space travel, but the book begins with anecdotes on jaunting. There is no blank exposition. And this, too, makes the whole thing work. The world, despite its alien nature, feels lived-in. 

                    And finally, there's the experimental typography. To disorient the reader in certain moments, or to focus on moments when the fundamental structure of the world is being altered, Bester matches it with typography. He does the same thing to highlight certain internal struggles and psychic tweaks. In the version I had, a lot of the typographical choices were somewhat diminished, so I don't have the full effect, but I liked what Bester was trying, and I'm sad it had so many imitators, since honestly when Bester does his odd typography, it works. It's about what's in someone's head, or how the structure of something is breaking apart. The only time I ever saw it used as effectively is in two of the three works of Mark Z. Danielewski, who made his own odd typography choices, but kept a similar structure at points. 

                        But there are some small issues. Things I like to call the Passage to India problem. The problem, as some might already know, is something present in the book A Passage to India, which breaks down at the end to near-acid trip proportions of hallucinations. While the internal struggle and breakdown of Bester's hero is important, there are points, particularly a sequence where Foyle's brain literally snaps and goes into a synaesthetic fugue, that things get a little hard to follow. Also, if you have trouble with the hero being a brute who ravishes and tortures with wild abandon, this is probably not the book for you***. Furthermore, the ending, where the hero achieves something beyond the "ascent of man" might be a little blindsiding, since the book up to then is a surrealistic but ultimately straightforward revenge story stealing a little here and there from Dumas. Though I do admit, as previously stated, Gully Foyle is worse than Edmond Dantes.

                       However, in the end, if you desire something fairly different from the usual fare, a book that strips away all the glitz of sci-fi and lays the whole mess bare, a book that will make you look at it differently, then please, for the love of whatever you believe is out there, pick up The Stars My Destination. It's a masterwork. it's the sci-fi novel I think everyone should read. Buy this. Read this. Keep this in your collection. You won't regret it. 

- Needful Things by Stephen King, kicking off a "lesser-read Stephen King" month

- Rose Madder
- The Eyes of the Dragon


*and also Dahlgren. And The Last Dangerous Visions.
** If you ask me, we need a second new wave of science fiction to clear the bad taste of numerous post-cyberpunk books that can be distilled down to "everything is awesome" out of our mouths. Among other things. 
***Also, stop watching 24.

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