Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” – A Stalwart of Classic Science Fiction

When The Stars My Destination was first published in the U.K. in 1956 under the title of Tiger! Tiger! science fiction characters at the time were fairly congenial with narrow scopes of emotion. Alfred Bester turned all that on its head with the introduction of Gulliver ‘Gully’ Foyle. Gully Foyle is the antithesis of the traditional science fiction hero at that time.

As the story opens Foyle is alone, angry, and desperate to survive at all costs aboard the wreck of the Nomad. He is surviving a few hours at a time when a ship happens by and approaches Foyle and the Nomad. As it nears Foyle makes out the name Vorga. Folye is relieved to be rescued, however, the hoped for relief never arrives. Vorga scans Nomad then moves on.

Galaxy October 1956
The cover of Galaxy Science Fiction, October 1956.

Foyle is dumbstruck at first but this is quickly replaced by rage and hatred, vowing to take revenge on Vorga. This spurs Foyle to take action and find a way to get Nomad moving again just to chase Vorga. Uneducated as he is, Foyle manages to learn how to get Nomad moving only to end up captured by The Scientific People. The Scientific People live on, or in rather, the Sargasso Asteroid.

The Scientific People expect Foyle to become part of their tribe and while he’s unconscious they tattoo his face in the same manner as their own with his forehead emblazoned with the name of the ship he was found on, thus renaming him Nomad in their culture. The tattoo makes Foyle look somewhat tigerish. Foyle, though, has no intention of staying with The Scientific People. He boldly escapes and makes his way to Earth. All this is just the end of Chapter 2. The rest of the story follows Gully Foyle in his relentless pursuit of revenge on Vorga. He is obsessed without consideration for anything or anyone else.

gully foyle
Gully Foyle after his encounter with the Scientific People.

Gully Foyle is not a hero nor is he likeable. He’s a crude and violent man whose exploits not only include violence, but torture and rape. Fortunately, The Stars My Destination was written at a time when authors implied certain actions that the reader has to imagine and a good imagination can come up with some pretty terrible things. That said, Bester has given us a story that is almost unputdownable. Despite my inner revulsion at the things Foyle does on the page, I could not help but turn to the next page to find out what happens next.

Even as Foyle begins to modify his behaviour somewhat, he is still driven by his goal of revenge, however after a period of time in a lightless prison he learns that his goal should not be the Vorga, but the people that crewed her. While as a reader I couldn’t identify with the need for absolute revenge, I was keenly interested to know why the Vorga would not rescue Foyle in the first place. To me, this is the central mystery and plot of the story and not Foyle’s obsessive behaviour.

Foyle is aided by three women in his quest for revenge, either directly or indirectly. First is Robin Wednesbury, a one-way telepath that can send her thought to people, but cannot receive them. Her story is intimately tied to Foyle’s in more ways than one. Robin is a therapist trying to help people with brain damage learn how to jaunte again. What is jaunting, you ask? In The Stars My Destination people in the future have unlocked the ability to teleport between places by using their minds. This is an aspect of science fiction that pretty prevalent until the mid 70s. There was a firm belief that humans would evolve to the point where we would have complete control of our environments simply through the power of our brains. This idea was often reflected in aliens with enlarged craniums. Take a look at the Talosians from the Star Trek episode ‘The Cage’.

Next is Jisbella McQueen. A fellow inmate of the oubliette Gouffre Martel. By some freak of construction there is a whisper line between Foyle’s cell and hers allowing the pair to communicate and make plans for escape. When an unexpected opportunity arises Gully Foyle leaps into action. Through blind rage and determination Foyle locates Jisbella in the prison and the pair make their escape. Now they are on the run from the authorities, and worse.

With Jisbella’s aid Foyle returns to the asteroid with the Scientific People and Nomad. Foyle and Jisbella are there to claim twenty million credits and the mysterious PyrE substance, however, they’ve been followed. Working as quickly as possible Foyle extracts the safe where these items were stored on Nomad but Jisbella gets into trouble. Foyle has a choice. Save Jisbella and lose the safe and Vorga or leave her. If you’ve guessed anything of Foyle’s personality I think you know which choice he made.

The last woman to aid Foyle is the visually sightless Olivia Presteign. Beautiful and cold Foyle meets her after he’s transformed to the infamous Fourmyle of Ceres. Fourmyle is a persona created to attract attention and offer misdirection as Foyle goes about on his new revenge. Revenge on the people that ordered Vorga to leave Nomad and not just the ship itself. This is a task that is proving more difficult than Foyle intended.

Lady Olivia, however, finds Fourmyle a bore and disdainful and it isn’t until they watch an attack on Earth by they Outer System government that they begin to come to an understanding.

The influence of The Stars My Destination on the entire genre of science fiction cannot be understated. If you have read any science fiction from the mid 60s on you will see the fingerprints of its influence everywhere. From the mega-corporate domination of society in cyberpunk to the anti-heroes we see in so much of modern science fiction to the body enhancements that are part of both cyberpunk and transhumanist science fiction.

Reading The Stars My Destination I was struck by how strongly I was reminded of later works like Samuel Delany’s Nova, M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephanson’s Snow Crash or Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space. I could see immediately how Bester had packed so much into this one book that many future authors could extract essential pieces to add to their own work. And as much that has been extracted already, I believe that there is still more that can be wrung from these brilliant pages.

Alfred Bester
Alfred Bester.

The Stars My Destination is very much a reader’s book. Bester is never overtly graphic with his descriptions of some very terrible things, yet if your imagination is properly developed you can’t help feeling revulsion and disgust in the appropriate places. These are the two reactions that I think Bester most wanted to convey when he wrote this book. After years of heroes with shining teeth and rock hard square jaws, Bester looked around and saw that the world wasn’t necessarily that way. He created a character that was flawed in a way that we wouldn’t expect outside of prison and gave him free reign to do his will the way he saw fit. Gully Foyle is not a man to be emulated in any way but his story is as compelling as any we might find in any genre anywhere.

If you take a look at characters like Takashi Kovacs (Altered Carbon), Ilia Volyova (Revelation Space) or even Jamie and Tyrion Lannister (Clash of Kings) many of their characteristics can be seen in Gully Foyle. In the science fiction genre I believe that Foyle is the first true anti-hero ever committed to paper. Given the bare fact that Gully Foyle is a reprehensible character the question we have to ask is why is The Stars My Destination such a profound and influential book? I think it comes down to three reasons:

Firstly, Bester was a master story teller. Publishing works in science fiction pulps of the 1930s Bester learned how to get his point across succinctly and with the maximum impact possible. The Stars My Destination is not very different in that respect. Bester does not coach the reader in any way; his descriptive text can be sparse to the moderner reader, but a sufficiently developed imagination fills in the gaps seamlessly creating the intended visual and emotional response.

Second, even though Gully Foyle is clearly a representation of the most base human characteristics you cannot help but feel an emotional connection to the character. Perhaps it’s because the story opens with Foyle desperately clinging to the wreck of the Nomad, living a few hours at a time, only to be so coldly abandoned to what should have been certain death that we can forgive him even the most vile acts in his quest to right such an intensely personal wronging.

Lastly, is the transformation of Gully Foyle from a nearly mindless thug to a repentant and more thoughtful human being. There is something about the redemption of a character that often enthrals a reader. From Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol to Alexandre Dumas’ Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo and a plethora of others, readers seem to have a soft spot for characters that rise above their previous selves to be better than we expect them to be.

Given that The Stars My Destination was published in 1956 it holds up surprisingly well. Certainly there are ideas whose times have come and gone but that does nothing to alter the fact that this is a well written and important novel. Since The Stars My Destination has been published there have been many novels that try to capture the same sense of brooding malice and danger; some more successfully than others.

Alfred Bester had a wide and varied career as a writer and I would argue that The Stars My Destination is his greatest work as a writer. It is a brash and rebellious work and given the era it was written a shot in the arm to the genre. From this point on we start to see less of the one dimensional shining hero and more often flawed characters that can go on to do remarkable things despite them.

If Bester had not given us Gully Foyle I don’t think we would have had characters like those found in many of Philip K. Dick’s work. William Gibson would not have helped found the cyberpunk movement without The Stars My Destination and science fiction films like Alien and Blade Runner would be much poorer without the influence of Alfred Bester.

Alfred Bester with this one book manages to cast a long, dark shadow over the entire genre; one that we would be poorer readers without. I would argue that Alfred Bester is the first ‘modern’ science fiction writer where protagonists don’t have to be golden beacons of morality and goodness. They can be human, even terrible, and still be interesting and captivating characters that we want to read about. Alfred Bester’s catalogue of science fiction is not the most extensive, but what there is is of excellent quality as worthy of reading today as when it was first published. If you have not read any of Alfred Bester’s science fiction I heartily recommend that you do so at your earliest opportunity.

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