Book Talk: 'The Stars My Destination' by Alfred Bester - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'The Stars My Destination' by Alfred Bester

Alexander Wallace sets sail for the stars.
There is a long tradition of the maverick hero in science fiction: snarky, irreverent, anti-establishment characters who go against the social order for one cause or another - or, in some cases, for no reason other than their own self-interest. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Han Solo, and after him, perhaps Peter Quill. Space, as portrayed in space opera, is the perfect sort of frontier environment that these people thrive in; they can be pirates or mercenaries, rebels or smugglers. Here, we shall discuss one older example, one that has in one way or another set the tone of much to follow.

The book is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, and that ‘hero’ is Gully Foyle.
The Stars My Destination is often heralded as a precursor to the cyberpunk of the 1980s, and I can understand why. There’s an everyman maverick protagonist put up against a malevolent corporate bureaucracy with things it wants to hide. There’s an alluring female deuteragonist who helps Gully break out of prison. There’s the general lack of conventional morality. There’s all the lying and cheating and stealing.

But much of that exists out of cyberpunk. Reading The Stars My Destination, it reminded me more of the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy. The sense of adventure is very much there, as are the maverick characters. Here, though, the lead is far more morally ambiguous that Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. He is an open scammer and a rapist (it’s one of those things that, regrettably, was not uncommon for roguish characters from the mid-twentieth century), and treats people in a very disposable manner; in that regard, he’s more like James Bond, but operating on his own rather than at the behest of an agency (perhaps not unlike Timothy Dalton’s Bond in License to Kill).

In terms of its scope, it is much more constrained than most space opera. The only human settlements thus far, in this book’s history, are within the confines of our solar system; in this regards, it reminds me heavily of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 in terms of its gallivanting around bodies that are already known to us. You see what is essentially a cargo cult in the asteroid belt in all its amusing oddness, as well as a temple and a prison on Mars. Earth itself isn’t given any short shrift; you see Canberra and Rome and a prison in the Pyrenees from which Gully must escape (and none of them are the sprawling cityscapes of cyberpunk). You travel along with Gully in a caravan circus.

In a key sense, The Stars My Destination is very much a product of those days when human progress seemed limitless and inevitably for the good. It was written in an age when many thought that psionic powers would be unlocked within their lifetimes, but alas that did not happen, and they do not feature in this novel in the way we usually think of them. What does feature quite strongly though is what Bester calls ‘jaunting,’ a human ability to teleport to any known location. Jaunting revolutionizes society and leads to no end of social discontent; a new way of flaunting wealth is to have non-instant transportation at all. It’s not at all a plausible development, but it is one that certainly provides dramatic depth to the story.

It’s almost seventy years old, but The Stars My Destination has endured for good reason; it presaged cyberpunk in its hatred for the corporate machine (something that reality has begun to catch up with), and provides a rollicking adventure yarn in the process. Anyone interested in mid-century science fiction, as I am, must read this post-haste.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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