Sunday, January 29, 2006

More classic science fiction: Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination

Few authors are able to handle cultural and sociological complexity well, and fewer still can manage to create a simple story in the midst of such complex material. Perhaps this is why Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination is a well-known classic of science fiction, since Bester is able to do exactly these things.

Bester's story is three things at once. First, it is the story of a sprawling society spread throughout the solar system, slowly giving in to a major military conflict between the outer and inner planets. The future as we might imagine it has gone through a massive upheaval by a single event: mankind has learned how to jaunte. That is, to spontaneously transport oneself across up to 500 or so miles instantly. Jaunting is accomplished through willpower alone, and thus is not the usual product of science fiction technology. The ability to jaunte has radical impact on the way society orders itself, and these details provide part of the backdrop to the novel.

Other authors might have found jaunting to be an interesting enough idea to center around, but apparently this was not enough for Mr. Bester. He writes a character driven story against this backdrop, centering around the very interesting and very strange Gulliver Foyle. He is one of the best known of classic sci-fi characters, a defining pillar of the rags-to-riches archetype. Gulliver "Gully" Foyle begins the story as a clueless, uneducated, unmotivated ship's mechanic barely smart enough to carry a wrench. Catastrophe befalls him and he is forced, little by little to rise to the occasion of survival. After managing to survive more than six months in a coffin-sized locker in an otherwise gutted spaceship, Gully looks like he's about to be rescued. When the ship scans him but then leaves him stranded, Gully undergoes a terrible transformation. The searing need for revenge against the soulless villains who leave him in deep space to die re-creates Gully into a driven, powerful, resourceful man. By the end of the book, Gully is the most wanted man in the universe (and richest, and most desirable, under others of his public guises).

The story of transformation is the center of The Stars My Destination, and is thoroughly explored through Gully's slow search for revenge and what that does to him and those around him. From sloth to driven, from lax unrealized potential to motivated venomous purpose, Gully becomes the perfect revenge creature. At the resolution of the novel, Gully is offered the opportunity to pursue his course of revenge to its natural climax--not only the destruction of his enemy, but the full animal transformation of his predator personality. But as he takes up the spoils of victory, including both material and political power, he catches a glimpse of what he is becoming. It shakes him. He asks the question, why must the "driven" men have all the power, simply because others are unwilling or unmotivated to take it from them? Gully then takes his accumulated power and jauntes all over the world, scattering it among the common people in a thousand places.

The Stars My Destination succeeds on many levels. It is an entertaining and fast paced story, filled with ingenious and well thought out technological and sociological texture. The characters are memorable and interesting, some of the best in all of science fiction. At its core, it is a story of multiple transformations, ending with a suitably science fiction image--that of an embryonic messiah readying himself to lead mankind through another upheaval and into their next stage of destiny. It is a powerful image, and one suited for the culture of Bester's times. It is a story of faith in democracy taken to its most logical and frightening extreme--unlimited power in the hands of the unwashed and clueless masses.

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