Visions of Paradise

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Stars My Destination

Gully Foyle, the protagonist [I hesitate to call him the “hero”] of Alfred Bester’s stunning novel The Stars My Destination is one of the finest, perhaps the finest, character in science fiction. Gully Foyle happens to be a madman.

As the novel opens, he has been stranded on the hulk of a derelict spaceship for six months. Being fairly simple-minded, he has no way of escape, and spends his time trapped in a small locker which he periodically floods with oxygen from the ship’s dwindling supply of oxygen tanks. Then a miracle happens: another spaceship approaches, and he sends out messages and flares asking for assistance. The ship approaches very near, and slows down as if to rescue him, but at the last moment it speeds up and abandons Gully Foyle to his fate.

This abandonment instills such incredible rage in Foyle that he determines to escape and seek revenge against Presteign, the company which owned the other ship. And escape he does, only to be rescued by a bizarre cult living on an asteroid which expects Foyle to become a member and spend the rest of his life breeding. This does not suit him, since his only remaining purpose in life is an overpowering thirst for revenge. So he flees the asteroid, only to discover that while he was comatose the cultists had branded him permanently to resemble the other cult members’ bizarre tattooed-appearance.

Hatred and revenge totally control Foyle’s personality for the entire novel, alienating everybody he encounters, whether friend or enemy, and even his few romantic attachments despise him more than love him. He has two major enemies seeking him throughout the novel, interfering with his own search for the captain of the ship which abandoned him. One enemy is Presteign of Presteign, the hereditary magnate who is head of the company, and who is seeking a mysterious shipment which was lost when Foyle’s ship vanished, thus he wants the location of the abandoned wreck from Foyle. The other is Y’ang-Yoevil of government Intelligence, who is trying to find Foyle as part of the government’s ongoing struggle with the Outer Satellites with whom the Inner Planets are engaged in warfare.

In the second portion of the novel, Foyle assumes the identity of Geoffrey Fourmyles, a rich dilettante who travels with an outrageous circus which has made him enormously popular while enabling him to hide from his enemies right in the public spotlight as he continues his quest for revenge. But two women who simultaneously love and hate Foyle learn his true identity, making it more urgent that he achieves his goal before he is captured by his enemies.

There are so many important aspects of this novel. A key ingredient is jaunting, the ability of people to teleport, some for only a short distance, others for thousands of miles. Another is the war which escalates as the novel progresses. A third is a mysterious item called pyrE, which is apparently the cargo responsible for Presteign’s search for Foyle.

The Stars My Destination is strongly-influenced by the classic The Count of Monte Cristo, but so filled with fascinating characters and ideas as to supersede its source material. In addition to Foyle and his two primary enemies, other important people include:

● Saul Dagerman, a radioactive scientist in the employ of Presteign, but perhaps the only person not cowered by him;
● Robin Wednesbury, a one-way telepathic psychologist who tried to help Foyle upon his initial return from space as a tattooed madman, for which he repaid her with hatred and suffering;
● Jizbella, a fellow prisoner in an unescapable underground prison, who flees with him during their impossible escape, only to be abandoned by Foyle during the last stages of the escape;
● Olivia, Presteign’s blind, ice queen daughter who rejects Foyle instantly when she meets him in his guise as Fourmyles, even though he falls immediately in love with her.

The novel proceeds at a helter-skelter pace, its complex plot growing and changing constantly as Foyle’s activities interweave with those of Presteign, Y’ang-Yoevil and the three important women. Whenever it seems that I understood everything, Bester threw in another twist, whether in his enemies’ search for Foyle, his own search for vengeance, or the nature of his fellow characters.

The novel’s climactic scene is a masterpiece of sense of wonder, a feat of creativity I have not seen equaled in any piece of science fiction in the 50+ years since. Several major authors tried a similar approach during the experimental New Wave era but, in my opinion, neither succeeded at all compared to Bester’s pyrotechnics.

My memory of The Stars My Destination always placed that book on my top ten favorite sf novels ever; re-reading it many decades later, I think I actually underestimated the novel. I definitely agree with so many major f&sf writers who consider it one of the finest novels ever written. It is very highly recommended.


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