This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying…but nobody thought so.
He was a hundred and seventy days dying, and not yet dead…
Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
And death’s my destination…
How can I even start this? The Stars My Destination (or Tiger! Tiger!) is one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read. Period.
It’s the story of Gulliver Foyle, Mechanic’s Mate, 3rd class. Education: None. Skills: None. Merits: None. Recommendations: None. He’s been adrift in the wrecked hull of his spacecraft for the past five months, and is slowly running out of air. And then, one day, a ship passes by, the Vorga. He signals distress, rescue, every flare left on his poor, blown out ship…
…and the Vorga passes him by. “I kill you, Vorga. I kill you dirty. Vorga, I kill you dirty!”
Seeing the afterburners of the Vorga scooting away lights a fire inside Gully Foyle. The lump of inert mass that was this common crewman transforms into a cunning animal, into a tiger-faced prisoner, into the clown Geoffrey Formyle of Ceres, into the most wanted man in the solar system, into a god. It’s been fifty-five years since Alfred Bester created this beast, Gully Foyle, and the world he inhabits. And it’s still riveting. How?
Let’s start with the bad.
First, the era is stamped all over this book. It was 1956, the Atomic Age. Gully can call another character “Jiz” without anyone cocking an eye. The multinational corporations are unmistakably built on a Fordist industrial framework. Languages besides English are treated as if they mattered, and the translation convention is not absolute. Saks-Gimbel is still open, and, elsewhere, it’s still Sears-Roebuck. Bester never explicitly mentions Sheffield and Dagenheim smoking cigarettes while they talk, but it’s hard to imagine them not doing so. Bester also never mentions computers. This is a future that long ago passed us by.
Second, there’s a romantic subplot. It seems very inappropriate to me for Gully Foyle to fall in love at all, especially after …those two scenes. It’s made worse as writing romance was clearly never Bester’s strong point anyway. The moment is rushed and hackneyed, and ever after Gully is smitten with the lady, having met her for five whole minutes, and even after all the revelations predictably come out in the end. It’s testament to Gully’s character that his amour never completely overcomes his thirst for bloody revenge.
But, somehow, these two things never seem to drag the book down. I think Neil Gaiman hit it on the head when he said: “
Gully Foyle controls the world around him, so that the awkwardnesses […] do not so much fade into the background as obey his obsessive dance.”
Bester was particularly adept at writing this kind of character. Ben Reich of The Demolished Man, which won the very first Hugo Award, is similarly driven, twisted, and obsessed. And Gully is one of the first amoral antiheroes in science fiction, the father of every cyberpunk street rat to follow. He heralds a few other favorite tropes of the genre, too: body enhancement via invasive surgery, the intrigues of multinationals which are the new powers, and the razorgirl are just three.
But beyond the historical value, there’s something compelling about him, something that draws you in along with the other characters. Gully Foyle, like Frodo Baggins, Guy Montag, and Henry DeTamble, transcend their limits and live on. Humans will always want to watch an animal become a god, and all the steps between.
The punchy prose certainly helps. Bester was weaned on writing for comics, radio, pulps, and early television, and he learned well. His writing is tight, spare, and sardonic. Try that prologue’s opening again:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying … but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks … but nobody loved it.
He has a certain Dashiell Hammett skill for almost everything being just short of quotable. And his gutterspeak has a rhythm of its own. “What’s a matter, me!” “Volga, I kill you dirty!” “I don’t know about Nomad, nothing.” “She’s a wreck, is all.” “You listen a me, you! Grab no guesses!”
Finally, there’s a certain Thing that happens in every Alfred Bester book. In this one, it takes the form of literary synthesia. You will know it when you see it. Suffice to say he would have loved experimenting with the layout options available in html and ebook formats.
I can’t recommend this book enough, I really can’t. Whatever way your tastes in SF run, whether raygun revival, New Wave, New Weird, or cyberpunk, you have to read this book. In the canons of literary history, there are the compelling characters, the ones who wrap everything around them. Edmund Dantes was one of them. Ahab, too, and Raskolnikov. So were Paul Atreides and Darth Vader. And Gulliver Foyle.
Gully Foyle is my name,
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
The stars, my destination.