No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017/101: The Stars My Destination -- Alfred Bester

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. [loc 247]

A classic of the genre which I had either never read, or read at an early age and forgotten: I decided it was about time I did read it, primarily because Bester is an author cited by Ada Palmer as an influence.

It's an epic space opera, with a huge canvas -- the Solar System of the twenty-fourth (or twenty-fifth*) century -- and a(a anti-) hero whose need for vengeance is worthy of Greek tragedy. Gulliver 'Gully' Foyle, marooned in a wrecked spaceship, thinks his salvation is at hand when another ship approaches: but it ignores his distress signal and leaves him to die.

Rage is an energy. Foyle, in short, rescues himself; transforms himself; learns self-control (not least because when he's in the grip of any strong emotion, his face displays a 'hideous' tiger-mask, legacy of an enforced tattoo); and discovers who gave the order not to rescue him -- and the secret of why he alone survived in the first place. There is also a fortune in rare metals, a recurring vision of a Burning Man, a radioactive detective who's after Foyle, a one-way telepath, and some glorious synaesthesia. Oh, and jaunting, personal teleportation over distances of up to a thousand miles.

In other words, there is a great deal happening in this novel. It's well-paced, occasionally melodramatic, sometimes very funny, sometimes (as for instance the descriptions of synaesthesia) gorgeously poetic. I liked Foyle's single-mindedness, self-transformation, and sheer competence; was interested to see Bester's predictions about which commercial clans remain in power (Kodak?); was unimpressed by some of the sexism (Foyle is a rapist and doesn't treat women well: jaunting has brought back the days of the harem where women are locked away). And it does have that sense of wonder, that epic sweep, of old-school space opera. Despite the flaws, and the sometimes dated feel of the society in which Foyle moves, I think I'll be returning to this novel.

"Why reach out to the stars and galaxies? What for?"
"Because you're alive, sir. You might as well ask: Why is life? Don't ask about it. Live it." [loc 3789]

*"Our UK editor also thoughtfully changed 'twenty-fifth century' to 'twenty-fourth century' throughout, while leaving the prologue's one actual date ('the 2420s') untouched." From Dave Langford's excellent piece on Bester

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