The Stars My Destination: some men just want to watch the world burn

Book cover: SF Masterworks edition of The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester (the scarred or tattoed face of a man against a lurid sky)Gully Foyle is trapped in a dying spacecraft. When the only vessel he’s seen in months ignores his distress signal, his rage finally drives him to patch up his ship in order to take revenge. The world and its mega-corporations will come to fear the wrath of a simple man.

In the future, humanity has learnt to teleport, but nobody can teleport across space – or to a place they’ve never seen / don’t know how to get to (there are some staggering holes in the logic of how this is demonstrated, but it’s a good excuse to keep your womenfolk locked up, chaps). This leaves Gully stranded. A man of limited intelligence, he passively waits to die until another craft sails past his distress signals.

So my problems with The Stars My Destination started early: I struggled to accept that vengeance is a stronger motivator than survival. Gully has been willing to drift for months. Only when he is snubbed does he suddenly work out how to fire up the engines. Really? Really?

With suspension of disbelief wobbling, my desire to engage with – let alone root for – our protagonist was off to a bad start. Then everything went down hill, because Bester was keen to ensure we recognise that Gully is an antihero. This was probably a brave choice at the time of writing, with scifi full of square-jawed Buck Rogers types, but Bester is either unflinching or laying it on a bit thick, depending on how forgiving you’re feeling. Having escaped his predicament, Gully casually considers committing if not genocide then certainly mass-murder (he doesn’t, but he’s prepared to); even more casually rapes a woman, mostly because he can; and then tortures the people he holds accountable for his abandonment.

This might not have alienated me so entirely if I had read any sense of disapproval of Gully’s actions. Or at least of the rape. But the narrative sweeps it to the side; although Gully theoretically ‘grows’ as a person and his victim is a recurring character, he never really acknowledges it (it’s too much to hope that he might try and make amends).

As the narrative progresses (and it bounds along with more plot than you can shake a stick at), Gully becomes educated and is taught to better control his emotions – to think before acting. This enables him to move on from murderous sprees to a more considered revenge, and opens the door to the highest echelons, where he promptly falls in love at first sight with a femme fatale (the narrative has pretty thoroughly established by this point that it doesn’t consider women to have any depths, so it’s not like he needs to get to know her).

When he discovers that his new love was responsible for the abandonment that started everything, Gully finally begins to exhibit something resembling remorse. Don’t worry though – he’s not guilty about the things he’s done (it’s not like he’s a monster, or anything. Oh, wait) – he’s guilty that he won’t now be able to complete his self-imposed mission.

As stories of personal development go, this one leaves a lot to be desired.

In an unexpected coda, Gully then liberates mankind from the control of the megacorps / governments by giving the people direct control of the McGuffin bomb he’s been carrying around throughout the novel. It’s a lovely sentiment for the time of writing (the people can no longer be taken to war by manipulative security forces and corrupt governments), but rather than feeling like an integrated plot, it seems weirdly tacked on. It’s not even a sign of Gully’s gradual enlightenment – he’s told it’s the right thing to do by a malfunctioning robot (almost literally a deus ex machina). Some personal growth. It’s one more way to stick it to the corporation he hates.

There’s a way of looking at The Stars My Destination as an early take on the Everyman vs the MegaCorps, and the rights of the individual (to education, to choice, to a meaningful life) vs the government/corporations’ desire to reduce the individual to statistics (the mob can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves and must be kept in their place). I think the intent is there, but I can’t get past the packaging – and it certainly doesn’t drive the narrative for the bulk of the book.

Coupled with the appalling handling of female characters throughout (even the supposedly capable criminal Jisbella doesn’t get a scene without being reduced to tears or hysterics), I found all this too hard to swallow. I recognise that it was doing something new and different for its time, so it is a building block that great things have been built upon – but, urgh.