The Stars My Destination; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Gully Foyle is my name

And Terra is my nation.

Deep space is my dwelling place

And the stars my destination.

I did have a review of sort in the archives for my favorite science fiction novel.

Does it have plausible science? No, but Bester works out the implications of mentally powered teleportation well.

It has vengeance.

It has an epic opening.

As the late reviewer Baird Searles titled his review of a re-issue of the novel: “Better. Best. Bester.”

The plot? Spacer Gully Foyle, a “stereotype Common Man”, is the sole survivor of a wrecked starship. After figuring out how to survive for 170 days in space, a ship, the Vorga, arrives.

But it doesn’t pick him up.

It leaves him stranded. The “door to holocaust” is opened, and Foyle begins his transformation into a juggernaut of vengeance with a face that flares with tiger stripes when angered and the words “‘Vorga,’ I kill you filthy” on his lips.

It’s a science fiction version of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It even has the same number of syllables in the title as writer and poet and fan of the novel Joe Haldeman pointed out.

The verse at the beginning showed up, in of all places, an episode of the animated tv show Phantom 2040 from 1994. (I believe it was one of the three “Dark Orbit” episodes.) It was a science fiction updating of The Phantom comic strip, a strip Bester wrote for.

Reviewer parallax provided by Speculiction.

Raw Feed (1990): The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester, 1956.Stars My Destination

I enjoyed this book even more the second time around.

The first time I read it, I was swept away by the excitement and suspense of the story, the depth of Gully Foyle’s obsession for vengeance, and Bester’s splendid working out of a society built on the ubiquitous principle of personal mental teleportation, the jaunte.

Those things were all there on the second reading but I noticed other things as well.

The theme of transcendence was obvious even on the first reading, but this time I noticed its many faces. Foyle not only develops himself physically and intellectually but morally; he thinks about his place in society. At one point, it is said, “The man who upsets the morphology of society is cancer.”  A curiously helpful, wise but malfunctioning, robot says a person is a member of society first, an individual second.

Foyle seeks a purging in punishment. Foyle will transform the millions like him who are stereotypically Common Men squandering their talents until he forces them, like him, to undergo a change.

Foyle seemed much more complex on this reading, and, ultimately, Foyle learns that not only should he not have been rescued since he was bait in a trap but also that Vorga would have just killed him after he was picked up since they were killing the refugees they were hauling.

Though Bester seemed, like many wimpy revenge stories, to have an ending where vengeance seems wrong, it doesn’t feel contrived since his novel is so concerned with questions of transformation and transcendence besides the obsession and justice of revenge.

On this reading, Foyle is somewhat contradictory character.  Bester deliberately shows this when he puts two scenes almost back to back. Jisbella McQueen discovers Gully Foyle is Fourmyle of Ceres. Foyle could kill her in Martian Commando Killer moder (I’m sure, in addition to other baroque touches, this is one of Bester’s influences on the cyberpunk authors) but doesn’t. The idea doesn’t occur to him.  Despite his denial and McQueen’s own statements, there seems to be a residue of love or, at least, faith and loyalty between the two. Yet in almost the next scene Foyle lies to Robin Wednesbury to get her to reveal Rodger Kempsey’s location on the moon. He promises to let her go then reneges on his word and forces her to still accompany him on his quest for revenge.

There also seems to be, at least on Wednesbury’s part, love between her and Foyle. She says, “You’re in love with her?  Olivia Presteign? … Ah, now you have lost me.” When Foyle becomes enamored of Olivia Presteign, Wednesbury seems to obliquely reveal a love of Foyle. Foyle, for his part, uses Wednesbury as a tool after once raping her.

Foyle’s dual side is revealed in the novel’s early part when McQueen speaks of his obsession.

Some of the novel’s best writing is at the end of the first part when Foyle, unable to control his obsession, leaves McQueen behind. The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s entry for Bester, written by Willis E. McNelly, speaks of this novel’s Jungian aspects. I don’t know much about Jungian theory but the observation seems valid. Certainly Bester, in personal statements, has talked about an interest in psychological theories and his The Demolished Man certainly shows Freudian themes.  Foyle’s tiger tattoo seems to be (Why didn’t the publisher keep Bester’s wonderful title Tiger!  Tiger!?) symbolic of what, I think, Jung called the shadow side. It is a stigmata of possession by dark, uncontrolled passions.

I believe the same thing is evident in Foyle’s strange, sudden (though Foyle attributes this to her being an Ice Princess, a Snow Maiden, symbol of the unattainable — a Jungian archetype) to Olivia Presteign. Or is this an example of the duality Jung saw in every person, ying and yang, male and female?

The novel shows religious symbology too. I probably wouldn’t have picked up on this without reading The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s Bester entry. Foyle is born again when Vorga leaves him and again when he jauntes out of St. Pat’s Cathedral. It is ironic perhaps that revelation of his abilities occurs there — or, at least, the conscious application of his incredible jaunting abilities. Also ironic that Foyle should be transformed in a church after earlier contemptuously commenting on religionists’ escape via their faith. He escapes his fate and realizes his abilities in a Church. Foyle is a curious combination of Moses, Christ, and a Faustian Mephistophles at novel’s end.

He sets the common man free from his mediocrity and from the tyranny of the tiger men, who Foyle sees as paternalistic, tyrannical, obsessed and also as scapegoats for the evasion of responsibility by the masses — more contradictory duality and perhaps another Jungian idea. And this time I actually got the point that Man doesn’t blow himself up for at least thirty years after getting PyrE — which, as Presteign comments, is detonated by the original creative forces of God: Will and Idea.

Foyle, with PyrE, also gives humans a terrible power and knowledge. He also serves as a liberator like Moses. The author of the Bester entry sees JXseph and MCira at novel’s end as Joseph and Mary, Christ’s parents. I don’t think so. Foyle seems to be treated like a prophet but the relation between Foyle and MCira seems like that of Christ and the woman who poured expensive perfume on him.

On a literary level, Bester uses the novel’s major characters as symbols of the major obsessions of society. Foyle — revenge, Paul Yong-Yeovil — pragmatic patriotism, McQueen — idealism, Presteign — greed and power, Wednesbury — sin and forgiveness, and Saul Dagenham  — transformation from selfish cynic to patriot. Foyle, when debating whether to reveal to the populace PyrE’s existence, questions the purity and consistency of their morals and value.

That malfunctioning robot (a seeming oracle from on high) tells him he must teach and not dictate to society, have faith in something. (It’s interesting that faith is necessary to jaunte and that Foyle, at story’s end, has faith in faith).

The description of synesthesia was breathtaking, the typography a clever device.  Bester’s elements of freakiness brilliance range from the Freak Factory to Cellar Christians, from Disease Collectors to Skoptsy to the Scientific People.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Briefing, Scolding, Questioning

Cheap Science Fiction Reference Books

More than a few of the bloggers I read and regular visitors to this site (sometimes the same crowd) like old science fiction and might find old reference books on science fiction interesting. I’m talking about books from publishers like Greenwood Press — expensive and really only intended for libraries.

Well, enough time has passed that libraries are starting to get rid of them. Their loss might be your gain.

In the past year, I’ve picked up all but one of John J. Pierce’s critical works. (He’s still working on the subject and posts infrequently on his blog.)

And, when I was in the bookstore selling off a seven volume history of the Prussian Empire, I came across another: Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, ed. E. F. Bleiler from Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. It was all of $10.

There are articles on various authors from a variety of scholars. Some are expected: John Clute, Peter Nichols, Brian W. Aldiss, Malcolm Edwards, and Bleiler himself. Brian M. Stableford has several, but I have many of his lit-crit collections from Wildside Press, so many of these are not new to me.

Other names I either didn’t expect in this context or are new to me: John Scarborough, James L. Campbell, Sr, John R. Pfeiffer, Willis E. McNelly, Robert E. Myers, Charles L. Elkins, Ronald D. Tweet, L. David Allen, Chris Morgan, Gardner Dozois, John B. Ower, Richard Finholt, John Carr, L. David Allen, Marilyn J. Holt, and Susan Wood. Colin Wilson shows up not only with the expected essay on H. P. Lovecraft but also A. E. van Vogt.

As for subjects, all are defensible and familiar except for the name Luis Philip Senarens covered by Bleiler. Favorites of mine omitted are James Gunn and Charles Harness, but I think that’s defensible.

Fritz Leiber

Speaking of Bleiler, the modern incarnation of his old employer, Dover Books, has started a series called “Doomsday Classics“. One of the reprints is Fritz Leiber’s The Night of the Long Knives.

And There Arose a Generation Which Did Not Know …

Over at the Coode Street Podcast awhile back, Kristine Kathryn Rusch talked about an upcoming anthology, Women in Futures Past. Motivated by bizarre claims she would hear from writing students about women (or the lack thereof) in science fiction history, she has undertaken an educational mission.

But why does she have to? Why does this kind of ignorance exist among the most connected people in the world?

Back in the 1970s, when I started reading science fiction as a poor student in a backwater town in South Dakota, I knew about these authors — even if I couldn’t get my hands on their books. My high school library had The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In the post Star Wars years, I managed to pick up a cheap, but new, copy of Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by Robert Holdstock. It also mentioned women science fiction writers besides Ursula K. Le Guin. So did Baird Searles’ paperback A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. So did James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction series.

I seldom, if ever mention, “diversity” issues. But even I bought, in the 1990s, three landmark anthologies on women in science fiction: Jean Stine and Janrae Frank’s New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow and Pamela Sargent’s two-volume Women of Wonder anthology.

Bought them and read them.

So why does the generation that grew up with huge amounts of data available with the twitch of fingers on the keyboard as opposed to a drive to the library or weeks long wait for loaned or purchased books know so little about this subject? Is the internet age or modern education destroying their curiosity?

The ignorance Rusch cites is among self-professed fans, neigh would-be writers.

I wish Rusch well on her project. If she has enough new material I don’t already have, I’ll probably buy the book.

I’m genuinely puzzled why it’s needed though. The digital age reducing the mental habitat of Arthur Koestler’s “library angels“? Overbooked schedules allowing less time for casual curiosity? Shortened attention spans? Still, we are talking about the age of the hyperlink.

I guess, as Merlin remarked in John Boorman’s Excalibur, “For it is the doom of man that they forget.”