100 sf

Thursday, May 24, 2007

#20: The Stars My Destination (1956) by Alfred Bester

“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice…but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks…but nobody loved it.”

The Stars My Destination is generally considered the sf The Count of Monte Cristo. The main character, Gully Foyle, is a directionless sailor who spends time in prison and escapes with the help of a fellow inmate, with riches near on the horizon. Not too unlike Edmond Dantes. Foyle is also driven by revenge. While left trapped on the merchant starship "Nomad" at the beginning of the novel, Foyle signals for help from a passing vessel, "Vorga." But "Vorga" leaves him to die, and Foyle finds something to live for…revenge. Foyle’s escapades accelerate from there. He spends time with a tribal group living on an asteroid, plans a terrorist bombing, takes on the identity of an upperclass dandy, and even trades in those dreaded weapons of mass destruction. Literarily pulpy, this novel is perhaps Bester at his best.

Last time we left Alfred Bester, he was writing about the skills of the mind. And so TSMD begins. The landscape of human civilization was radically changed years in the past by a skill called jaunting. To jaunte is to travel from one point to another instantly, purely by thought. The ability was first discovered by Charles Fort Jaunte, and many of the early practitioners died while attempting it. But once the general populace gained the skill, all shit broke loose. The poor began jaunting out of slums, thieves jaunted into anything they could, the ruling class turned to sexual Puritanism, and security lost its meaning. By Foyle’s time, civilization has come to a relative calm again. But things are strange. For instance, the rich show their wealth by not jaunting—resorting to expensive bicycles before doing something so beneath them. The rich also keep their daughters locked in blind rooms that ensure no contact with the outside world. Purity. Virginity. Fascinating stuff.

Bester also takes a page from Golding and describes a tribal group of humans. Gully’s first stop on his revenge trip is an asteroid inhabited by the descendents of a stranded scientific research team. Calling themselves the “Scientific People,” they speak an odd dialect, tattoo themselves with elaborate Maori masks, and line the interior of the asteroid with parts scavenged from abandoned, wreaked, and lost space vessels. Foyle makes more than one visit to this strange asteroid during the course of the novel, and his sense of what these people are changes with every visit. Bester also describes a group of neo-Skoptsy. And they’re frightening. Instead of just settling for castration like their Russian cousins, these Skoptsy sever their central nervous system in a belief that sensation itself is the root of all evil. They spend the rest of their lives living in eternally dark catacombs on Mars, never again seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching. Gully Foyle calls them “the living dead.”

In the end, Bester seems to be looking towards the next stage in humanity in TSMD. Beyond rocketships and moon dreams, what does it really mean to have the stars as a destination. Gully Foyle finds out.


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