When Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination was first recommended to me, it was with the promise that he “packs as much world-building, plot and character into 170 pages as Asimov did in the entire Foundation series”. I still remember the exact quote, because I have yet to discover a more apt description of why this novel from 1957 stands to this day as one of the masterpieces of science fiction. Bester uses a time-honoured plot to push us as readers through a fantastically well-realized world at seemingly breakneck speed, but somehow still leaves just enough space for us to appreciate time-honoured literary devices (including the original “burning man”) and never get lost in the reality of the universe he creates. The only science fiction film that comes close to that combination of action and world-building (aside from Star Wars, of course), is The Fifth Element, which actually bests Lucas’s film in terms of how much it introduces and accomplishes in a single, self-contained story. The Stars My Destination feels so modern in its approach and style that it’s difficult to believe it’s a work from the late 1950s. But here it stands, this slim volume with so much to offer.
Bester took the device of The Count of Monte Cristo as his loose inspiration, in this case the man in the “mask” being Gully Foyle, astronaut, who begins the story stranded in space, living in a survival locker amongst the ruins of his ship. Weeks pass in this imprisoned state, and one day he sees a ship pass by and not rescue him, with “Vorga” painted on its side. This transforms Foyle into an instrument of revenge, and gives rise to one of his signature lines, “Vorga…. I kill you filthy.” Eventually he finds a way to escape from the asteroid on which his ship crashed, only to be himself captured by a fanatical cargo cult and given a facial tattoo that would make Mike Tyson blush. (The tattoo, in the pattern of a tiger, is a reference to another major literary influence, the poem “Tiger, Tiger” by William Blake.) Finally making it back to earth, Foyle sets off on a campaign of revenge against the Vorga, her crew and anyone associated with the mission, unaware that there was a very good — and very classified — reason that the Vorga passed him by.
If it sounds like those are a lot of spoilers, rest assured: there’s a great deal I’m leaving out. In fact, that short plot summary is really of the first 20 pages or so. And the story doesn’t get any less complex, yet somehow it never gets confusing. The revenge angle gives the story a natural momentum, even though years pass and there are long digressions. Foyle’s journey takes him through prisons, shipyards, a guided tour of New York, a fantastic scene set on a beach at night, and even a magic show for rich dilettantes. There’s intrigue in Rome, horrific scenes of torture, a plausible “romance” with another major character (it never feels like a romance — more like the relationship between Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road) and an ending that is every bit as spiritual and cosmic as 2001, or at least Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Through it all, Bester introduces a story device called “jaunting”, which is literally instant teleportation anywhere with which you are familiar. Just imagine being somewhere, concentrate, and you’re taken there. There isn’t any technology involved, per se, just a belief that it’s possible. It’s the one completely impossible thing that the story introduces, and it figures prominently in the ending (and, for that matter, the title). But that’s what most great science fiction does. As long as a story doesn’t ask the reader to believe more than one, or perhaps two, completely impossible things, it’s easy to suspend disbelief and get on with enjoying the story. In this case, Bester develops the technology and the culture surrounding it with great skill, adding nice touches like the notion of “jaunting pads”, structures like platforms high above cities to which people can jaunt, or “jaunt-proofing” in private homes and prisons. It all feels logical and allows Foyle to sail through a story that covers a lot of ground but is always light on its feet.
The take-home message of the book is, in keeping with good old-fashioned science fiction religious imperatives, that faith is necessary to break beyond technology and finally achieve freedom. Jaunting might seem like a gateway to an entirely carefree existence, but as Bester develops it, it becomes clear that like with the invention of the automobile or the airplane, a faster mode of transportation doesn’t necessarily make life any better, on the whole. Foyle’s revenge story intersects with a story about corporate secrets and corporate greed (very timely today), but Foyle, like the story, literally rises above cliche and stretches about as far as a clever science fiction imagination can stretch.
It’s such a cinematic story that one could be excused for wondering why it hasn’t been adapted for film. (Asimov’s Foundation hasn’t either, of course, but that series has the excuse of a hefty length and an episodic story structure.) The short answer to such a query is that there have been attempts, including one by James Cameron, but somehow the story, however brief it seems, simply contains too many elements to fit into a conventional movie. I’m sure somewhere a booster-juice-sipping Hollywood feather-headed dimwit producer has uttered the words, “Can we change the ending? It’s so weird!”, so in that case it’s probably a good thing that the project has been in turnaround for decades. Books (including comics) aren’t simply source material for the almighty cinema, anyway.
All of that is really a long winded way of saying that my unreserved recommendation for good sci-fi week reading is The Stars My Destination. There is a comic-like illustrated adaptation (originally published in Heavy Metal and later in a Marvel imprint), but it is incomplete due to legal problems of the original label, Baronet. The novel itself is fully sufficient, however, to remind us that the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were a golden age for modern science fiction literature, using one of the prime examples of the genre.
Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars, my destination