Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Review of “The Stars My Destination” novel by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester opens his novel with a chapter describing the history of jaunting: the ability to teleport oneself soling with thought. In the distant future of the 25th century, this ability has long since changed the way society works, eventually leading to a war between the IP (inner planets) and the OS (outer satellites). Set within this richly conceived universe is a seemingly average spaceman, Gulliver Foyle, who wakes up in the wreck of a spacecraft desperately trying to shore up his remaining supplies of air and food. After being passed by the Vorga, a ship that could have rescued him, Foyle is driven to inhuman strength by the wish for revenge. What follows is a fast-pace adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo” that is shorter to read than it is to summarize.

The Good:
Like Bester’s other key work, “The Demolished Man,” completed five year earlier, “The Stars My Destination” is first and foremost a supernova of ideas. This time around they come faster than before, nearly at the rate of one inspiration every two pages. Not just the quantity has increased, however, and Bester’s research really shows in his ability to generate truly thought-provoking gems that all feel fitting and exciting even at their most outrageous extremes. The narrative is unashamedly science-adventure with a dark, witty and often maniacal tone that must have been shocking to casual readers in the 1950’s. The plotting, propped up by the new ideas at every turn, is a racing, rocketing, ever-escalating series of action sequences, jaggedly sketched set-pieces and bizarre twists. The end result is infinitely sugary and addictive, making a short fast read with enough of an afterglow to reward hours of contemplation.

Despite the many possible strikes against it (see below), the book remains a rightful classic of the 1950’s.

The Bad:
The main problem with “The Stars My Destination” is essentially identical to my complaints about “The Demolished Man”: there is no development of the ideas or their wider implications. This book does a better job, not the least because the lightning pace leaves little room to think out the details, but one still feels the weight of contradictions, plot holes and loose ends building up in the wake the adventure. Still, compared to his previous novel, the ideas are sewn together better, the society rendered more deftly, the ending more satisfactorily wrapped. Unfortunately the sense of a seamless reality never quite materializes.

Interestingly, it struck me that although Norman Spinrad considers this novel to be one of the most important in the genre, it is clear that it falls victims to the issues satirized by Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream,” so much so that I suspect that “The Stars My Destination” might be one of his highest profile targets. These problems include a progressively more ominously ruthless hero myth, disturbing amounts of violent sexual undertones (and overtones) and a sexist streak a mile wide. Though there are three strong female characters, their strength is depicted as essential evil (more so even than the merciless anti-hero) and they function narratively as tools for the hero to use and dispose. Many of the women in Bester's future are kept in windowless locked rooms to avoid the risks that jaunting poses to their chastity.

Grade: A

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Interesting that you can have an extended "bad" section but still give the book an A. I suppose that's a good thing, though. And I know how much you like novel ideas within literature.