Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination holds an esteemed position in science fiction literature as one of the genre’s masterpieces. It heralded a significant shift in style and tone for the genre, from pulp orientated action adventures, to gritty, dark, and thought provoking fiction. Following his success from The Demolished Man (winner of the very first Hugo Award in 1953), in 1956 Bester published The Stars My Destination (originally titled Tiger! Tiger!). It is in essence a science fictional retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, following Gully Foyle in his quest for vengeance against those that left him to die in the vacuum of space. Featuring human teleportation and deep political intrigue spanning the solar system, Bester blends riveting pulpy action, classic literary traditions, and innovative and experimental ideas to construct a mesmerising depiction of the future.
“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 above sets the tone for the universe of the 25th century. Travel between the stars is commonplace and man has colonised the solar system, yet humanity is still wracked with greed, violence, corruption, and a voracious thirst for power. Despite numerous technological advances, the most profound discovery of this age is jaunting; the ability to teleport hundreds, even thousands of miles instantaneously using willpower alone. This subverts the classic science fiction trope of the impact of scientific discoveries upon humanity. It is jaunting and not a breakthrough technology that forever changes civilization, and is the catalyst for the political and military climate within the novel. Though teleportation sounds overwhelmingly positive, in actuality it brought about many serious negatives. Violent crimes surged as perpetrators could escape easily, disease spread as populations were impossible to regulate, and many key industries capitulated. Conventional forms of transportation and communication are rendered obsolete with the advent of jaunting. Why use cars, planes or telecommunications when anybody can travel anywhere in the world in a matter of moments? This restructuring of culture, industry, economics, and trade destroyed the delicate symbiosis of the Inner Planets (Mars, Terra, and the Moon) and the Outer Satellites (Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Rhea, and Titan), resulting in a vicious war between the two factions.
“Presteign of Presteign was the epitome of the socially elect, for he was so exalted in station that he employed coachmen, grooms, hostlers, stableboys, and horses to perform a function for him which ordinary mortals performed by jaunting.”
Reflecting the real world fears of endless, unchecked capitalism and consumerism in the 1940s/50s, the political and economic power of the world within The Stars My Destination is held by small but extremely powerful ‘clans’. Notables include the Rolls-Royce and Heinz families, but most significant to the plot are the Presteign clan: a family owned mega-corporation with interests and influence spanning the solar system. Members of this oligarchy flaunt their wealth and power by attaching themselves to outdated technologies, displaying the fact that though telephones and antique cars are now obsolete after the discovery of jaunting, they can afford to use them anyway. The influence of these clans reaches the very top of government and military affairs, with corruption and personal bias being the status quo. No price is too high for the clans to get what they want and remain in power. This notion of very few mega-corporations controlling the economy and politics for their own nefarious ends remains one of the core aspects of cyberpunk literature, which was first conceived in The Stars My Destination. The depiction of these mega-corporations could be said to be somewhat dated, with their behaviour and manner being akin to the upper class of Bester’s time. The idea that names such as Rolls-Royce and Heinz still exist in the 25th century is also a stretch, but within this I believe there is an even more profound idea. This seemingly outdated depiction suggests that money and power transcend time and place. No matter the technological and cultural developments of a civilization, the hyper-rich will not easily relinquish their ways and will use any means necessary to remain in power. Considering the history of the world, this representation of the everlasting, undying nature of money and power is all the more insightful.
“He was Gully Foyle, the oiler, wiper, bunkerman; too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love.”
Within the context of this version of the future we meet Gulliver Foyle, the every-man and general nobody. He is the lone survivor of the merchant ship Nomad after it was attacked and abandoned. He has spent the last 170 days eking out existence in the gutted wreckage of the ship, scavenging what he can among the debris to then retreat to the one remaining airtight locker in the ship, a veritable coffin for the marooned man. His mind is fractured and circumstances pitiful, yet Gully exhibits a primal, animalistic determination towards survival. He perseveres not out of heroism or hope he will be saved, but simply because he lacks the motivation and intelligence to do anything more than just survive. This all changes when he spots a passing ship, the Vorga, sister ship of the Nomad and belonging to the same Presteign industrial clan. After hailing the ship and signalling distress beacons, Gully’s brief moment of rescue and salvation is dashed when Vorga passes him by, leaving him to rot in space.
“So, in five seconds, he was born, he lived, and he died. After thirty years of existence and six months of torture, Gully Foyle, the stereotype Common Man, was no more. The key turned in the lock of his soul and the door was opened. What emerged expunged the Common Man forever.”
This betrayal reforged Gully into an entirely new entity; the embodiment of vengeance. His apathy, sluggishness, and menial existence up until this point are burned away in an instant by his fury and hatred for Vorga. It is this new Gully that immediately sets about escaping and plotting his revenge. This newfound motivation consumes his whole being, inspiring him to achieve more and sustaining him during his darkest moments. Though highly volatile and ultimately self-destructive, such emotions and motivations are relatable and wholly tangible. Fury and vengeance are undoubtedly detrimental in the long term, but without this new purpose, Gully surely would have perished aboard the Nomad. The ramifications of this betrayal determine the course of the novel and resound through the solar system, as Gully Foyle stops at nothing to exact his retribution.
“How long did you drift?” Joseph asked.
“Vorga,” Foyle mumbled.
“You are the first to arrive alive in fifty years. You are a puissant man. Very. Arrival of the fittest is the doctrine of Holy Darwin. Most scientific.”
After reactivating Nomad’s engines to set a crude course for Jupiter, Gully was captured by The Scientific People; a lost tribe living in the recesses of the asteroid belt, descended from marooned scientists. Their entire culture is formed around a deranged, cult-like reverence for science and scientific method. This notion of a long lost tribe of people hidden amongst the stars is an interesting play on a classic literary trope and a striking aspect of the world within the novel. An advanced yet strangely barbaric society separated from the rest of humanity is a very interesting paradox, with many bizarre and interesting quirks. The Scientific People questions the notion of progress and the role of science within culture. Do they represent aspects of culture that modern man has lost? Or simply an example of how society devolves with time and isolation, clinging to vestiges of culture and knowledge far removed by time and space. Here Gully is dubbed Nomad, after the ship he was found on and is ‘scientifically mated’ to a wife. Before stealing a ship and escaping, he is given crude facial tattoos, in the same manner as the rest of the Scientific People. His face now an array of swirls and stripes, with his name Nomad emblazoned on his forehead. Reminiscent of tiger stripes, these tattoos are emblematic of Gully’s primal and animalistic pursuit of vengeance. Even after the external markings are removed, they still burn brightly whenever Gully feels intense emotions, representing man’s relationship with revenge and anger. Though outwardly invisible, Gully’s vengeance and hatred forever burn within him.
“Vorga, I kill you filthy.”
I will not be delving too deeply into the specifics of the plot in this summary, but Gully’s metamorphosis from single-minded brute to the proverbial ‘modern man’ is the defining aspect of the novel. Gully’s ‘gutter tongue’ and vocabulary, and his brutish demeanour reflect his initially simplistic and brutish mentality. Though motivated in his quest for revenge, he lacks the intelligence and cunning to effectively do so. After escaping The Scientific People, he makes his way back to Earth and makes a failed attempt to destroy the literal spaceship Vorga. “You’re like a wild beast trying to punish the trap that injured it”. Such a simplistic a deduction reflects Gully’s animalistic, single-minded, and misguided rage. After his capture and interrogation by Presteign, he befriends the fellow inmate Jisbella, who instigates the next step of his transformation. Brawn has gotten Gully this far, but he will need the cunning and intelligence of an educated man to find those responsible for leaving him to die.
“Yes, rich and empty. You’ve got nothing inside you, Gully dear. Nothing but hatred and revenge.”
“Enough for now. But later?”
Though Gully slowly develops control over his emotions and ruthless behaviour, he is still wholly consumed by his hatred for Vorga. His unprecedented determination and ruthlessness thwarts any attempt to capture him, but at great personal cost. He remorselessly beats and bludgeons past anyone in his way, and betrays his friends rather than compromise any chance he has at getting closer to Vorga, making him a very complicated and conflicted protagonist. As his character grows, he assumes the alias of Geoffrey Fourmyle of Ceres, a garish and mesmerising nouveau riche. He uses the identity of Fourmyle to enter the upper echelons of society and find who was in charge of the Vorga. Part of his transformation also includes costly physical enhancements, secretly turning Gully into a fighting machine capable of great feats of strength and speed. As his search deepens and the ongoing war intensifies, the answers he finds become darker and increasingly complicated. His circumstances are merely a small part of much larger machinations, involving treacherous and heinous crimes, and a war-ending super weapon known as PyrE. This coupled with his own crimes and the realisation that vengeance has cost him much of his humanity ultimately dissipates his rage and thirst for vengeance that has driven him so far, leaving him burnt out and empty. This highlights to us the inevitable result letting burning hatred and rage dominate our being; although we wish to see the object of our hatred suffer, it is only ourselves that our consumed by the fires.
“…The most damnable thing that ever happened to a man. I picked up a rare disease called conscience.”
Gully’s portrayal as the likeable yet questionable anti-hero in The Stars My Destination leaves us perplexed. He has been wronged greatly, yet in the name of these wrongs he has committed monstrous and violent crimes, including rape, torture, hostage taking, and killing or injuring anyone in his way. Do the ends justify the means? My answer is no, yet it is not so simple. The repeated allusion to Gully as a tiger is important to mention. His animalistic determination and single mindedness is what drove him on and kept him alive, but also what drove him to commit his own crimes. Does this suggest that all men are beasts and must be trained to be ‘men’? Or that everyone is both a man and a tiger? Without Gully’s ‘tiger’, he surely would have died on the Nomad, thus an amount of credit must be given to his animalistic determination. Despite Gully’s crimes and failings, he comes to represent humanity and the harbinger of man’s salvation. Gully is good, bad, and imperfect, as we all are. His development from marooned cipher, to vengeful beast, to accountable and self-actualised man demonstrates that he deserves this title.
“To space-jaunte? Why? Why reach out to the stars and galaxies? What for?”
“Because you’re alive, sir. You might as well ask: Why is Life? Don’t ask about it. Live it.”
At the conclusion of the novel, it is discovered that Gully is the key to the next step in humanities evolution when he learns the truth of how he was marooned in space. Nomad was attacked by the Outer Satellites and Gully was set adrift in space as bait. In his semi-conscious state he miraculously jaunts 600,000 miles through space back to the wreckage of the Nomad, a previously unheard of feat and one that will redefine society and mankind. Prior to this, jaunting was believed to be limited to a few thousand miles and restricted to the surface of plants. Furthermore, when pushed beyond his absolute limit, Gully had the capacity to Jaunt across time. The recurring imagery of the mystical burning man throughout Gully’s odyssey is found to be his own self projecting through the universe. Altogether terrifying, perplexing, and inspiring, the burning man represents the latent power within mankind, unbound by time and space and yearning to be unlocked. This sequence is particularly well done through vivid imagery and a mesmerising representation of synaesthesia, highlighting the confusion and disorientation one might experience during transcendence through time, space, and the unknown.
“Take a war to make you spend. Take a jam to make you think. Take a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around lazy, you. Pigs, you! All right, God damn you! I challenge you, me. Die or live and be great. Blow yourselves to Christ gone or come and find me, Gully Foyle, and I make you men. I make you great. I give you the stars.”
Gully’s awakening and self-realisation is ultimately the most important discovery within the interplanetary conflict. Despite the dominating presence of mega-corporations, and the world ending technologies of the future, it is the dormant potential within the every-man that is most profound and influential. Upon this awakening, Gully seeks to shake mankind from its stupor and laziness to fully realise the potential within all of humanity, just as he himself has done. The disempowerment of the masses at the hands of the ruling class is what Gully believes is holding back humanity. Returning to the notion of man’s salvation, Gully seeks his own salvation by freeing the rest of mankind from their economic and political yoke, and to teach them the ability to space jaunt. Quite literally giving back the power to humanity, he collects the remaining PyrE on Earth and redistributes it across the globe, thereby forcing the ruling class and business clans to respect and work with, not against mankind. Man deserves the right to determine their own destiny, and despite the potential for disaster and destruction, humanity deserves it anyway. It is this faith in the idea that meaning and purpose for humanity exists somewhere in the universe that is the source of Gully’s ability to space jaunte. Here we finish on an uplifting and profound notion of the future; we need only enough faith and confidence in our innate potential to project ourselves to the stars, future, and beyond.“