Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
The Stars My Destination / Alfred Bester
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Wednesday, 02 June 1999
A na?‾ve man is being tricked by powerful aristocrats. As a result, he will spend the rest of his life in a dark prison cell. However, with the aid of a fellow prisoner, he manages to escape, assumes a fake identity as an aristocrat, and his revenge on his oppressors is long and sweet.

Sounds familiar? Right. This is the core of Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. It also happens to be the core of Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. While Dumas' classic tale of high adventure took place in the early 19th century, Bester's version of the plot takes place several centuries hence. The futuristic setting is what earns the book its “science fiction” title, though it is more than a shallow “space opera”.

What makes the book so enjoyable (it is considered by many of Bester's readers to be his best book) is Bester's fast-paced, almost insane style. There's never a minute of rest for our hero, Gully Foyle, nor for the good reader. The book is a page-turner, probably the best achievement of the style popular among SF writers back in the 1950s. It also (narrowly) avoids the pitfall of becoming “pulp” SF, common to many books written at the time.

So much for the fiction; as for the science, here the book is sorely lacking. Several interesting scientific concepts are presented, such as teleportation at will (“jaunting”) and the very special chemical called “PyrE” -- but hardly any reasoning is given for either of these (and other intriguing notions).

The compensation is Bester's projections regarding the social effects of these technologies. The portrayal of a world in which jaunting is possible is fascinating. The main limitation of jaunting is that the destination must be envisioned, and the jaunter has to know exactly how it looks like. One direct implication, for example, is that houses (especially girls' rooms) no longer have windows. In addition, Bester provides several other fascinating (and unexplained) ideas, like the result of Gully's sensual-input mixup. (You might be interested to learn that the images and special calligraphy used to represent that mixup were created by Jack Gaughan. I think it's a shame that his name is hidden so carefully in the credits page.)

The settings described bring to mind books written decades later, mainly “cyberpunk” titles. In fact, some argue that Bester, in this and some of his other books (such as The Computer Connection) was a pioneer of the genre.

Those who love Bester's style will certainly enjoy this book. Anyone who enjoys soft-core SF will find this book a fascinating read. If you've never read a Bester before, this is probably the best place to start.

(From the book) Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
The stars my destination.

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