“Tyger! tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
– William Blake
He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.
“The best book in the world”, says Harrison. “Considered by many to be the greatest single SF novel”, says Delaney. “A work of actual genius”, says Haldeman. Well, the first is as absurd as one might expect from the man; the latter two may be arguable.
The Stars My Destination is an unashamed retelling of The Count of Monte Christo, at least in its early parts. Indolent and uneducated, brutal and basic, Gulliver Foyle is a seemingly worthless specimen of humanity marooned in space in a small pocket of air in the wreck of an interplanetary craft, but he is also a man of great potential, and when he is abandoned to die by the spaceship Vorga that potential is unlocked, turning Foyle into a ruthless, obsessive hunter for revenge. Determined to track down those responsible, he becomes caught up in a web of questions with immense import: what was the cargo of the ship he served on, the Nomad? Why did the Vorga not rescue him? At the root of these questions is the mysterious substance PyrE, which may destroy or save the world, and perhaps a second secret of even greater significance. In a world dominated by megacorporations that have ossified into commercial ‘clans’, complete with titles and regalia, and in which everybody can teleport through will alone, albeit with limitations, Foyle has to negotiate a path through many layers of deception and confusion, not knowing whether he is playing the role of hunter or of stalking horse.
I will give the book the benefit of the doubt and say that it is stunningly courageous in the amount of faith put in the reader – very little is explained, and much is left to the imagination. Most of the characters, for instance, appear complex, but only if the reader exerts the effort to join up the dots of their strange behaviour, as little is expressed overtly. Large periods of time are elided, and information is dropped as though the reader is already familiar with it, which forces us to pay constant attention. The unfortunate exception to all this is the prologue, an exercise in cowardice, given over entirely to an immense infodump. It is not a badly-written infodump, but it feels completely out of place before the first chapter, with its iconic opening line; all the information in it could have been given in the text, if it was needed at all. It does, it is true, provide an alternative perspective, but a more courageous author would have incorporated that perspective into the body of the text through more inventive narrative devices – which would also have removed the need, at the end of the book, to refer back to the beginning for things that haven’t been needed or mentioned for the entire book.
I can see why Bester is acclaimed for writing two masterpieces, and also why there was not a third: he is on the edge of genius, but delicately balanced. With a more critical eye, if we do not let ourselves get carried away by the virtues of the text, we can see his flaws: stilted dialogue, lack of uniqueness for the characters (particularly painful when we see Y’ang-Yeovil and Dagenham in the same room for the final Star Chamber conference at the end of the book – Y’ang-Yeovil is a cipher, Dagenham is appealing but hugely under-motivated and without adequate backstory, and they both sound exactly the same – it’s not clear that they are both needed in the novel) and a reliance on melodramatic and cliché situations. The decision to give everybody the names of various English towns is physically painful to me, though presumably innocent enough for an American audience, and the end is just atrocious. Leaving aside the multiple, sometimes unnecessary deus ex machinae (in one case literal!), there is far too much given to an out-of-the-page ethics lecture that is strongly reminiscent, in tone and elements if not entirely in message, of Ayn Rand. The final moral decision is mind-numbingly stupid to the extent that I can’t believe it happened (it takes a controversial but interesting stance, but applies to the situation in a way that is incoherent and self-contradictory to even the most cursory consideration), and the entire ending seems to fail to consider a key piece of information revealed earlier on.
A further enduring problem is the lack of emotional engagement. The novel proceeds at a hectic pace, which exhilarates, but is an obstacle to strong attachment that neuters the shock of the various twists and turns: “my god, X died! oh wait, I only met X two pages ago, why do I care?”; “wow! it was X all along! well yes, but I’ve only heard X say three words so far in the twenty pages they’ve been around, so I can’t say I’m completely surprised” (fictional examples). In particular, alongside Dumas, the novel suffers from the lack of Mercedes: the revenge tale of Dantès is given added power by the fact that, in Mercedes, we know something of his life before the fall, something that endures afterward. With Foyle, nothing exists before he is marooned, so all of the attachments that he feels later on feel rootless, and frankly a little ridiculous. This problem is only one part of a wider flaw in the novel: poor balance. It only really comes to life halfway through – in most adaptations of Dumas, the story proper only begins at this point, yet Bester does not use the first half of the novel to set up the second at all. Foyle’s descent/ascent as he educates himself in pursuit of revenge, transforming his character, feel artificial and cursory, occurring as it does through sudden moments rather than through gradual change. For example, his early (compelling) ‘gutter’ syntax is replaced in a single paragraph as though Bester had said “right, I’m bored of that now, let’s have him speak properly”. The transformative part of the story seems to be of little interest to him, even though it is ostensibly the main theme of the book; instead, the first half of the novel is enjoyable enough in its own way, but fundamentally wasted, in a novel that otherwise seems so short on time for background that it feels a little like a sci-fi series filmed on cardboard sets that wobble when the actors pass. Instead, a great deal of time is lavished on the corporate culture of the future world, but to little effect – it is more like a description of what a man from the fifties would think might happen than like a vision of a real, deep, coloured world. The result is neither immersive nor particularly shocking. Even the Big Idea, jaunting, is underfeatured – some consideration is given to its effects on world society (which are supposedly immense), but even there it feels cursory – a paragraph of hypothesis spread out and repeated through the book, conveyed usually in short expositions rather than in demonstrations of a lived reality.
In short, it is confused, ill-balanced, shallow and often clunky. That said, it does have some good points…
Adrenaline: 4/5. I can’t give it 5/5, in large part because the excitement really comes in the second half, but it was never dull, and became very gripping. It has a hectic, ruthless, almost nauseating pace. Then again, the book is very short, so it doesn’t have to hold the attention for very long. I could have read this easily between lunch and tea.
Emotion: 2/5. Couldn’t really engage with the characters. Some of them (Foyle, Gully, Jiz) had the outlines of real, complicated people, but none were given enough time or attention to blossom into people I actually cared about. Others seemed flat and there only for (dubious) plot reasons. There is a degree of interest, though, even with some of the minor characters (especially the “skoptsy”, in my opinion). Particular mention should go to the horrible secret revealed on the moon, which manages to be truly unpleasant in the middle of what could easily be a desensitising book.
Thought: 4/5. No element here really fires the brain, but it fires so much at us. There are a great many ideas here that could be the subject of short stories or even novels in their own right, which are thrown away in paragraphs. The pace, furthermore, forces us to be on our toes the entire time, as does the nest of betrayal and deception.
Beauty: 5/5. Perhaps I’m being generous, but I think that in places the prose deserves the highest accolade, and in there are many aesthetically striking scenes and concepts – it is a very visual novel. There are, not to give too much away, some experiments with typography that amount to genuine poetry in their interweaving of text, context, typing and conceit. The whole air of the novel is exuberant, filled with a remarkable, exciting joie de vivre.
Craft: 3/5. Clearly, from the above scores, there is competence here. However, the considerable flaws are mostly due not to inherent limitations of the chosen story but to limitations of the author’s craft – better written, this could have had 5s on Thought and Adrenaline, and boosted Emotion considerably. The ending in particular deserves to be criticised a second time.
Endearingness: 4/5. My word, I do hate that ending. Not the very, very end – that’s not bad at all – but the lecture bit and the gods popping out of the machines. Ow. That hurt. On the other hand – it IS fun, and exciting, and interesting and… as I said before, it has a certain joie de vivre that is infectious, and makes it hard not to think kindly on the novel. The ending doesn’t ruin it, only spoils it.
Originality: 5/5. Yes, a lot of it is ripped from Dumas, but that’s more of an homage than a crutch. There is such a madcap procession of events, so many ideas flung at us, such a peculiar setting, that there is no other novel quite like this one – and the ending only amplifies that.
Echo: 0/2. I did feel something on ending it, but I don’t think it was shock. I think it was more… pausing for breath. Most of all, I think that the novel is too short to ever totally immerse, and thus too short to hammer the system badly on withdrawal.
Overall: 6/7. Very Good. Despite its flaws, this sit alongside Leibowitz, Kavalier and Clay and Watchmen as a Very Good novel. It touches on brilliance but doesn’t quite get there, in my view. I wouldn’t argue too loudly against anyone calling it brilliant, though.