The Stars My Destination

Posted by : atcampbell | On : January 22, 2008

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

13 people attended the FACT reading group discussion of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. Almost everyone has read something by Bester before. Most of the group has read this book when it first came out. Almost all of them re-read it anew before the discussion. Only one person did not finish the book.

This novel is set in the 24th century, when most humans have developed an ability to “jaunt”, or to teleport. The protagonist, a bad-guy antihero named Gully Foyle, seeks to avenge an injustice done to him in the past. His corporate masters left him for certain death, which he escaped against all odds, and now his mission in life becomes to destroy them. They are hunting him too, since he knows a secret so important they’ll stop at nothing to extract it from him. During this wild interplanetary chase, he (supposedly) matures mentally and emotionally, and discovers he has a special ability on which the fate of the world hinges.

Many people admired the visual impact of Bester’s writing. Even if they initially read the book decades ago, the images from the book stayed with them: the burning man, the tattoo, the woman who saw in infrared (Olivia), the prison in France, the colony on Mars. One reader said the very fact that he remembered the events in this book was extraordinary, since he reads hundreds of books a year and can’t remember what he read six months ago. The scene that left an unforgettable impression on him was the one where the blind woman Olivia “saw” Gully’s face mask, and drew it out for her father. When he re-read the book, he was very surprised the scene was only 2 sentences. It had been etched into his mind as one of the most important scenes of the novel. Several readers noted that Bester uses “the proper words instead of a lot of words” to make a point, and in that “Stars My Destination” differs from many novels of today, that would take many more words to tell the same story.

Since the language of the book itself was highly visual, some people thought the graphical effects at the end were unnecessary. They even felt those effects aged the book a bit. A reader guessed Bester must have thought it was original, but he simply might not have been familiar with non-genre writers who had done it before. Other readers liked the graphical effects, however. One person said it reminded her of the Space Odyssey.

The aging of the book, or lack thereof, was an important part of the discussion. Most readers agreed that The Stars My Destination held up very well over time. “It didn’t have computers, so we couldn’t make fun of them using slide rules, etc.” said a reader. But some others pointed out little details that gave the novel a dated feel in some places. For one thing, the rich people all seem to be heirs of the 20th century mega-corporations, for example Gilette. It is as if new industries did not emerge for the next four hundred years. Second, the cities and the infrastructure looked the same as in the 20th century. Some argued, though, that with the prevalence of jaunting, the cities might have stagnated, because people did not have to live in the cities anymore. They could live anywhere they wanted and jaunt to work, so there was little reason to improve cities.

Another thing people thought was out-of-date was Bester’s attitude towards and descriptions of women, especially “the ice princess thing about Olivia” (to quote a reader). No one, however, gave a concrete reason why it felt that way, except for a vague feeling that “the common way you talk about women and spaceships” has changed. More generally the readers noted that the main theme of psychic power-assisted teleportation was very 50s. Back then there was a widespread belief that ability for teleportation lay buried in the human psyche, waiting for the right circumstances to be brought out. There was even military research done in that direction, or rumors thereof. Unsupported by any evidence, this notion fell out of fashion.

Personally I found the premise of jaunting a big flaw of the novel. For millions of years humans didn’t have teleportation powers, and then all of a sudden everybody found out they had them? To me this seemed absurd, and it undermined my enjoyment of the book from the very beginning. Another reader countered that it’s not impossible for new mental abilities to evolve in a short period of time. He referred me to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, who argues that consciousness, or self-awareness, developed in humans in just a few generations around 3000 years ago. I still think that if humans had all of a sudden developed psychic powers, the society would have changed unrecognizably. The social structures would not have remained frozen in the fifties, as they are in The Stars My Destination.

Even if the future in this book seems a bit stale, one area where Bester was acknowledged to be innovative was the choice of protagonist. From the beginning Gully is described as a person with no redeeming values, and this impression only deepens early into the novel. The scene where Gully rapes a woman gave many female readers a pause. This prompted some debate in the group whether the protagonist’s behavior reflected Bester’s own attitudes towards women. It probably didn’t, concluded the readers: there are indications in the book that the authors was critical of his character’s behavior. One person said: “This isn’t one of the books where attitude towards women is stark and negative, and the author seems to accept it… The author is very critical here. The ethical question is whether you can accept that this is understandable, although despicable […] in light of things he’s been through, and whether you believe there is redemption in the end. His final scene with scientific people is also a hint at the redemption he was trying to get.”

Nonetheless, a few readers had mixed feelings about a novel that featured such an unlikeable protagonist. One person said he used to feel he had better things to do than to read books where protagonists were assholes; however, somebody convinced him to give “Stars My Destination” another chance, and he didn’t regret it. Apparently at the time Bester wrote this book, an anti-hero was a novelty in science fiction. It was common for science fiction to portray future in which people got better and better. The Stars My Destination changed that. To quote a reader, “Bester brought SF out of Campbellian worldview. Campbell would not have touched these stories. They are not as engineered as Campbell liked.”

As far as the protagonist’s redemption, most readers agreed Gully experienced character growth. After being so obsessed with revenge, he finally starts to mature and realizes that revenge is not really where it’s at. One reader speculated, though, that the ending might have been the best kind of revenge Gully could have over the humankind. On the face of it, Gully’s final act is supposed to teach the humanity to become better, but its consequences are ambiguous, and it’s not clear what his intentions were. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, some readers called the ending “brilliant”.

–Elze Hamilton