Stars My Destination, The

by Alfred Bester

8/10 (Thin characters, clumsy prose)

It was cool to read the book that contains the namesake for one of Stephen King’s better short stories, “The Jaunt.” You definitely get the feeling while reading that its influence spans many authors and decades. Its originality is inarguable, the style fresh and bold, and in the end it sort of reminds me of Isaac Asimov on acid. . . not your sterile, buttoned-down science fiction but rather your crazy ex-hippy uncle of a sci-fi story.

That said, crazy ex-hippy uncles are not noted for their stalwart reliability, and Asimov is notable for his horrendous writing (especially his earlier works, which I address most directly in my review of Foundation and Empire). Unfortunately, “Stars” suffers from both these defects. While it is head-and-shoulders above The Demolished Man in quality and scope, it is still quite rough around the edges with stilted dialogue, thin characterization, too-sparse narration (especially of the action sequences) and a casual misogyny that exemplifies an ultimately very dated atmosphere. Try this on for dated:

Presteign did not care for the artists, musicians, and fops Olivia kept about her, but he was pleased to see a scattering of society notables this morning. There was a Sears-Roebuck, a Gillette, young Sidney Kodak who would one day be Kodak of Kodak, a Houbigant, Buick of Buick, and R.H. Macy XVI, head of the powerful Saks-Gimbel clan. 45

This is the 25th century we’re talking about, with the same economic royalty that didn’t even make it out of the 20th.

I’ll admit it’s a minor quibble and I want it on record that I admire the hell out of Bester’s bold vision. It’s inevitable that you’re going to fall on your face a few times when you’re projecting that far into the future. And some of his predictions really work: telepathy, the idle leisure class, the interplanetary colonization wars, the anti-gravity fields, etc. Even the jaunting (his name for “teleporting”) he handles deftly, imagining the full security and privacy implications of everyone being able to instantly transport themselves basically anywhere. I still don’t really buy some of the logistics (e.g., how does knowing the coordinates correspond to being able to visualize your exact location, and vice versa?), but the whole venture is quite impressive.

The thin characterizations were the real drag of the book. There is only one character, the protagonist, who is not completely one-dimensional, and he is merely two-dimensional. He experiences four “romances” during the novel and apparently picks them up and drops them off at random, with no real explanation or consideration. One of them is a “true love” and we know this because at the moment he falls in love with her we are told over and over how much he loves her. There’s no build-up or rational context. He makes a transformation at the end that is hollow because until then he has been a murderous, savage, torturing, raping vengeance-seeker with no conscience and no depth.

This lack of depth keeps the reader at a remove, unable to fully engage with the story or care about what happens to Foyle, to Terra, to the solar system, or whatever else. This is worsened at the end when (SPOILER. . . . . . .) the entire explanation for Foyle’s abandonment, which led to his revenge in the first place, is revealed to be nothing more than psychopathic bitterness about being blind on the part of a heretofore minor character. . . nevermind that she has visual capabilities outside of the normal spectrum that appear to dwarf a regular person’s.

That said, the end offers a lot of pleasant twists and turns. Despite a relatively simple message (“Revenge is bad.”), Bester is able to turn the book into more than just a revenge tale in the last couple of chapters. You find out that Foyle is about to open mankind to an entire new era, and the way he illustrates Foyle’s cross-sensed perceptions is innovative and ingenious (you can see the same mind that wrote some of the telepath choreographies from “Demolished”). There’s even a moral dilemma about whether or not dangerous secrets should be kept from the masses, and although it’s lamentably answered by a “robot ex machina” Bester’s attempt to tackle the question head on is laudable.

All in all the pluses of the book — its bold vision, compelling narrative and memorable protagonist — is weighed down but little by the principal minus (clumsy prose). I tend to think the most memorable sci-fi writers are primarily idea men, their prose led by their vision, so I don’t think less of them if their writing doesn’t quite hold up. Asimov was definitely this way, as was Bradbury most of the time (despite the literarily underrated Fahrenheit 451) and maybe even Huxley. Bester definitely belongs in this group, and not in the next tier which I reserve for the greater literary talents of sci-fi: Vonnegut, Atwood, Dick, Le Guin and 1984.

Here’s some praise: I checked it out from the library because I figured after “Demolished” I’d probably be okay not owning it. After reading it, however, I’m putting it back on my list to buy.

Original Review


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