The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
March, 1957 Signet Books
Originally appearing as a four-part serial from October 1956 to January 1957 in Galaxy Science Fiction (available for free download at the Internet Archive here, here, here, and here), The Stars My Destination was published, in slightly different form,* in a single volume in the UK as Tiger! Tiger! in 1956. This Signet editon came out in 1957, under the Galaxy title and also featuring the edits of Galaxy editor H.L. Gold, more of which below.
I think I first became aware of this book over twenty years ago, when it received the Vintage Books reprint with the appropriate industry coverage. I got a copy at Half Price Bookstore, which I’d recently discovered, having just moved down here to Texas. (This was back in the days when books there were really half off, and LPs were super cheap…I mean I got “Abbey Road” for under two bucks!) When I read it at the time, I was surprised by how good the book really was. Re-reading it again these years later – I couldn’t believe how great it was.
At that time, one of the main proclamations about The Stars My Destination was how prescient it was, and how, despite being written in the mid 1950s, it felt so modern. In particular, it was championed by cyberpunk writers and readers. However I don’t think this is so much because Bester was prescient (not that he wasn’t); it’s that all those cyberpunk writers were ripping him off. There’s enough for five or six novels in The Stars My Destination, Bester hopping from plot development to plot development in true pulp style – it’s like comparing a super-compact, super-fast Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic from the ‘60s to a super-contrived, super-“cinematic” comic from today – and no surprise, given that Bester wrote comics for a time.
But the story changes, constantly. We meet our hero, Gulliver “Gully” Foyle, who is really more of a villain, adrift in space; the sole survivor of a ship called Nomad which has been crippled by a ship from the Outer Planets – it’s the 25th Century, the solar system is inhabited, and the inner planets of Earth, Mars, and Venus are at war with the outer ones. Foyle is a “common man,” a minor mechanic on the ship; at 30 years old, a guy who has never applied himself. But he’s managed to survive alone on this ship for 6 months. The ship is owned by Presteign, a vast corporation – another of those elments that makes the novel seem so modern is how powerful corporations have become – and when a sister ship, Vorga, finally passes him by, Foyle thinks he’s been saved. (We will later learn that this occurs on September 16, 2436.) But Vorga abandons him – and the common man is no more; Foyle is reborn for the sole purpose of revenge.
Bester made clear his intention to write a sci-fi version of The Count Of Monte Cristo, and that’s what we get here, but as mentioned it’s a lot more colorful, pulpy, and fast-moving. I wouldn’t say The Stars My Destination classifies as “forgotten fiction,” so I’ll forego my usual belabored, long-winded, digressive sort of review and just go for the highlights. Because basically if you haven’t read the novel, just go read it.
The stuff with “Foyle surviving in space” is enough for one novel, but before we can grasp it he’s been saved by “Joseph and the Scientific People” (a name for a ‘60s acid rock group if ever there was one), who live on the “Sargasso Asteroid” amid space detrius. Bester is a superb scene-setter and describer, and well brings to life these innovative future worlds – more presience in how these places are cluttered with the junk of the past. Joseph not only gives Foyle a “wife,” Moira, but also tattoos his face like a Maori mask, all in black, with “Nomad” emblazoned on his forehead. He does both these things without Foyle’s being aware of it, and much to Foyle’s wrath.
Before we can catch up with all this, we’re in New York, where Foyle’s secretly learning how to “jaunt” again. Another thing I recall from back when I first learned about this book; the reviewer in whatver magazine I was reading said something to the effect that, to enjoy The Stars My Destination, you’ll just have to accept the fact that, in this future century, human beings have abruptly discovered that they can teleport. I admit, I still think the jaunting stuff is goofy – and again, it’s enough for a novel all its own – but Bester has it that a scientist named Jaunte spontaneously teleported in the lab one day, and from there it spread that practically all mankind could do the same. Bester has really thought the whole jaunting thing out, too, with “jaunt-mazes” and people escaping citywide destruction instantly, to even the women of the 25th century being practically “cloistered” due to concerns of improriety.
Speaking of which, Foyle rapes a woman in this section – a scene which makes clear that he’s not a hero. Initially I thought this was so Bester could give the Galaxy artist a “spicy” scene to illustrate (which he does), but it turns out that there’s more here than that. The victim is a “lovely Negro girl” named Robin Wednesbury who also happens to be a telesend, meaning she can broadcast her thoughts – usually unintentionally – but cannot receive them. This is a “century of freaks” as Bester describes it, but in reality it’s like the comic books he had written, only normal people have superpowers. But Foyle rapes her – the act of course off-page – after she’s learned he can jaunt, despite being in her beginner’s class. In truth, the “rape” deal is sort of awkwardly used – it happens apropos of nothing and is not dealt with again until later in the book. Plotwise, Bester wants Foyle to do something awful for which he’ll later want to be forgiven.
Special warning: this rape scene is known to trigger the sensitive readers of today, most of whom fail to grasp that 1.)Foyle is not a good guy, or at least doesn’t start out as one; 2.)And, most importantly, that Foyle spends the entire last quarter of the novel wanting to be punished for his raping of Robin. I already had a run-in with a reviewer who took the opportunity to rail against the “fucking vile” treatment of the women in this novel. She was not grasping – no doubt intentionally not grasping – the two items mentioned above, not to mention the fact that Bester clearly states that, due to jaunting, the women of the 25th century do not have the freedoms of today’s women. Also not to mention the fact that, you know, the entire crux of the novel is sin, redemption, and forgiveness.
She also failed to grasp how important women actually are in The Stars My Destination, and that each of them has an impact on the future of the entire galaxy. More importantly, Robin Wednesbury has the power of forgiveness, telling Foyle in the end sequence – in a cool psychedelic bit that takes place thirty years in the future – that “all that is long forgotten and forgiven,” or something to that effect. I can’t recall too many pulp novels in which the act of forgiveness is employed. But this is just one of the many things that elevates The Stars My Destination above the norm.
Another thing elevating it is the multiple characters. While you have Foyle with his tattooed face running around like a bull in a china shop, you also have Presteign of Presteign, his daughter Olivia (who in another comic booky element can only see in infra-red), CIA honcho Y’ang Yeovil (who is Chinese but doesn’t look it – in another bit of prescience Bester has race becoming a moot point in the future; due to jaunting, races have mixed to the point that most everyone has the same complexion); female radical Jisbella McQueen, whom Foyle meets in prison and who basically educates him (and I have to admit I got a sophomoric chuckle out of how Foyle always called her “Jiz;” now you tell me if “Jiz McQueen” isn’t a pornstar name waiting to happen); Dagenham, a former scientist who now runs a sort of courier company, who is “hot” due to radiation; and a host of minor characters, from a doctor who keeps a circus of surgically-augmented freaks to a child telepath who is 70 years old.
Just as compelling are the colorful scenes Bester captures throughout, all of which are incredibly cinematic. Foyle is sent to infamous undergrond French prison Gouffre Martel early in the novel, a place that is pitch black; in his inevitable escape, Foyle gets hold of a pair of infra-red goggles worn by the guards, and Bester appropriately brings the setting to life. It’s in Gouffre Martel that Foyle meets Jiz, who teaches him over the course of several months via the “Whisper Line:” a freak occurrence in the caves which allows them to converse, even though they’re separated by miles. They take up a sort of correspondence class, and Foyle’s character begins to subtly change, losing the “gutter” language he started the novel with. They also fall in love, sort of, and eventually have sex – though of course Bester leaves it off page, and for that matter isn’t much for exploiting his female characters, in fact barely even describing them.
And again the material with Jiz and Foyle is enough for its own novel, in particular a gripping part where they take a “Saturn Weekender” out into space (one of the things I like about the novel is that it doesn’t stay Earth-bound throughout) to find the wreckage of Nomad, now integrated into the Sargasso Asteroid. Foyle has determined that something valuable must be there – he’s found out there are millions of credits, but what he doesn’t know is that the true treasure aboard is all that exists of PyrE, an experimental substance which we’ll eventually learn could not only hold the key to the balance of the Inner-Outer Planets war, but also to the future of mankind. The scene is masterfully built up and played out, as Foyle, consumed only with his vengeance, actually abandons Jiz to Dagenham’s men.
My favorite part soon follows; now we are very much in the “Count Of Monte Cristo in the future” mold, as Foyle, a millionaire many times over, poses as eccentric Fourmyle of Ceres, who runs the punningly named “Four Mile Circus.” More importantly, Foyle has had “Space Commando” surgery to his body, which has augmented his reflexes to inhuman speeds. (I wonder if this “fast reaction time” business might have inspired author Robert Vardeman in his unpublished volume of The Baroness.) Foyle is now “more machine than man,” and with a touch of his tongue on an upper molar, he can go into Six Million Dollar Man-type superhuman speed.
More comic-booky is that, thanks to Jiz earlier paying some quack doctor, Foyle has had his face tattoos surgically removed, but he later discovers that, when he is angry or consumed with passion – or basically anything that makes him lose control of himself – the tattoo reappears on his face, but this time it is red. So now we have a red-faced “tiger” with “Space Commando” reflexes, and it’s very cool, and Bester delivers several thrilling parts where Foyle, face glaring red, activates his speed setting and takes out pursuers Matrix style, wiping them out in fractions of a second. However Bester does not dwell much on violence, and there’s certainly no gore in the novel.
Also returning here is Robin Wednesbury, whom Cyrano de Bergerac style Foyle has hired to be his social mediator, introducing “Fourmyle” to all the jet-setters, but really using her telesending skills to let him know who is who so that his cover never falters. More dramatic sparks here with Robin learning that Foyle is the same “monster” who raped her, but deciding at length to assist him, mainly so she can use him to discover the fate of her family, who appear to have been casualties of the solar system war. This entire sequence is a lot of fun, with the two jaunting around the world and tracking down the crew of Vorga; it also introduces the eerie “Burning Man,” a flame-consumed vision of Foyle which keeps appearing in front of Foyle and others at random intervals.
On and on it goes – the novel’s not even 300 pages but man is it meaty. In fact it’s breathless. Today, it would’ve been written as a trilogy (at least!), but then today it wouldn’t have been half as brutal or pulpy. Bester, despite writing in 1956, even factors in psychedelic stuff, from various reality-warping drugs to a finale which sees Foyle – having of course become the Burning Man due to PyrE – jaunting across the space-time continnuum, the text warping and expanding courtesy artist Jack Gaughan. There’s another great psychedelic visual sequence where Foyle stands beside Olivia Presteign while the Earth is being bombarded by intergalactic missiles; the Earth defense system kicks in, up in the night sky, but only Olivia can see it, due to her infra-red vision, and her descriptions to Foyle are downright lysergic.
The Stars My Destination starts off being about Gulliver Foyle’s drive for revenge, not to mention his lunkheadedness – he starts the novel so simple-minded that he literally wants revenge on Vorga, ie the ship itself, before Jiz informs him that it’s the crew who made the decision to abandon him – or, as she so wonderfully puts it, that Foyle must begin to use “brains, not bombs.” The novel gradually diverges into the Monte Cristo parallel with Space Commando trimmings, before changing again into a metaphysical probing of mankind’s right to determine its own fate, not to mention its right to travel the stars. Fittingly for old comic writer Bester, the philosophy behind this comes from a bartender android, whose circuits are shorting due to Dagenham’s radioactivity.
Anyway to finally sum up (and there’s a ton of stuff I haven’t even mentioned!), I rank The Stars My Destination as one of my favorite novels, up there with Boy Wonder.
*The publishing history of the novel is a little scewy. After a lot of research – imagine my “shock” when none of this could be found on “usually reliable” Wikipedia – I’ve discovered the following:
There are three versions of the book extant: the original Galaxy serial, collected in this Signet paperback; the UK version, titled Tiger! Tiger!; and finally the 1996 Vintage Books edition, which per the copyright page features a “special restored” text. This last one might be the definitive version, as it tries to find a healthy balance between the original US and UK editions.
The Galaxy and Signet versions feature minor edits, courtesy Galaxy editor H.L. Gold; I found a reference in some book that Bester often complained that Gold made unwarranted edits to his text. However the differences I found when comparing the serialized version to the Vintage Books edition – and it wasn’t a thorough A/B test – were minimal. It appears that most of the material Gold added was for purposes of clarification. For example, early in the book during the Sargasso Asteroid sequence, Bester notes that the tattooed names on the faces of the women feature an “O” with a “tiny cross at the base.” He leaves it at that, but Gold adds, “the sign of Venus and female sex.” When Dagenham visits Foyle in prison, he reminds Foyle (and the reader): “I’m dangerously radioactive, you know.” This does not appear in the Vintage/UK edition, and clearly was inserted by Gold because this sequence appeared in the second serialized installment; Dagenham was introduced in the first. Gold also removed minor things – sometimes, I feel, for the better. Like during the tense scene where Foyle abandons Jiz to Dagenham’s men in space. In the US edition, Jiz merely screams, “Help me, Gully!”
The UK edition does not feature Gold’s edits, but it does feature the edits of some unknown and apparently skittish UK editor; most notably, all of Foyle’s promises that he will kill Vorga “filthy” are changed to “deadly.” In the sequence with Dagenham’s men capturing Jiz, mentioned in the paragraph above, Jiz has the additional dialog, “Do something, Gully! I’m lost!” I think these extra lines interfere with the intensity of the sequence. Finally, the psychedelic printing tricks of Chapter 15, courtesy artist Jack Gaughan, do not appear; at least, so I have been able to determine, in most of the original UK editions.
The Vintage edition from 1996 is basically the British version, Tiger! Tiger!, only with the US title and without the H.L. Gold edits, but it does have “filthy” instead of “deadly.” Otherwise I think it is the same as the version detailed in the paragraph above, save that this Vintage edition features the psychedelic font tricks in Chapter 15.
Personally, I most prefer the original US version, as presented here in the Signet edition. I think Gold’s edits are, for the most part, beneficial to Bester’s text. But the Vintage Books edition is much easier to acquire these days – it’s still in print 22 years after it was published – so that’s probably the one I’d recommend. Or you could just follow the links way up above and read the original version, as serialized in Galaxy.