Friday 13 June 2008

The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester

TSMD was first published in parts in 1956/7 and may also be found under the title 'Tiger! Tiger!'. I first read it in the 1960s and it blew me away, becoming established after a couple of re-reads as my favourite SF novel. I hadn't read it for decades, and picked up my much-worn 1965 Panther paperback with some apprehension that it wouldn't live up to my memories. I needn't have worried. This is a dazzling firework display of a story, packed full of original ideas and maintaining a ferocious pace to an unexpected, dramatic and entirely satisfying conclusion.

The author starts with a five-page prologue to set the scene: a 24th Century in which humanity has spread throughout the Solar System, and in which the Outer Satellites are in conflict with the Inner Planets. At the start of the century, a man named Jaunte accidentally discovered teleportation – the ability to transport himself from one place to another by an effort of will – and soon almost everyone was "jaunting". There turned out to be a 1,000-mile limit, though, and no-one could jaunte through space.

Prologues are out of fashion these days, the current orthodoxy being to plunge the reader straight into the action, but I am frankly rather tired of having to read the first few chapters of a story before I can work out what's going on. Bester uses his prologue to outline the kind of society, much altered by jaunting, in which his story takes place, and his book is all the better for it.

We are introduced to the principal character, Gulliver Foyle, as he struggles for survival on board a wrecked spaceship near the Asteroid Belt. An uneducated man of limited ability but great potential, he is only spurred to take the action needed to save himself by the casual spurning of his plight by a passing spaceship. The rest of the story concerns his ferocious battle for revenge against those who abandoned him, a battle which sees him ruthlessly using and abusing all those around him in order to claw his way to the wealth and fame he needs to achieve his aims. In the process, he educates himself, learns to control his rage, acquires a conscience and finally realises his undreamed-of potential.

It has rightly been said that any modern author would spread the ideas scattered liberally through TSMD over a fat trilogy, but Bester packs them all into 195 pages. Jaunting, one-way telepathy, a woman who can only see in the infrared, the interrogation techniques of the Nightmare Theatre and the Megal Mood, a rewired nervous system to provide blinding speed and an automatic "Commando killer" programme, exotic drugs, sympathetic blocks which automatically kill people if they try to reveal secrets, an explosive of almost unimaginable power which can be detonated only by thought, and a vivid account of the confused senses of synaesthesia. The settings include a lost asteroid colony made up of descendents of scientists who regard scientific formulae as religious texts, a prison deep within the Gouffre Berger cave system, an Earth dominated by vast corporations whose hereditary leaders form the nobility, and the Martian base of a Sklotsky sect whose members voluntarily have their nervous systems severed. It's all here, wrapped up in an exhilarating ride of a story. For me, the only jarring note which showed the age of the novel was the inclusion of a character so poisoned by radiation that no-one else could survive near him, while he remained healthy.

Critics may argue that modern novels use their greater length and slower pace to include much better characterisation, but in doing so they lose the relentless, unputdownable drama of TSMD. Science fiction is essentially about new ideas and concepts, about stretching the imagination, and TSMD delivers this better than any other novel I know.

Bester (1913-1987) had previously won a Hugo award for 'The Demolished Man' (1953), a novel about telepathy which, although good by most standards, doesn't really compare with TSMD. However, he didn't write another novel after TSMD for nearly twenty years, and nothing he subsequently wrote achieved the same dramatic impact. This is disappointing, but it can't detract from his achievement in writing what is still, in my opinion (and that of many well-known SF authors), the greatest of the classics of the genre. Anyone with an interest in science fiction should read this book, at least once!


Fred said...

TSMD is a regular in my top 5 SF novels, usually No. 1 just after I reread it. I also am confused as to why _The Demolished Man_, although a good read, won an award while TSMD didn't. There's really no comparison between them.

By the way, I'm Fred from the Modern SF group, which is where I got your blog address. Good Blog. I'll have to spend some time going through your back entries.


Anthony G Williams said...

Hi Fred, thanks for your comments. I hope you enjoy the rest of the blog.

Craig Herbertson said...

Tiger Tiger is indeed a tour de force. A good review. I couldn't agree more with your 'rather tired of...' comments about modern sf (and novels in general)

Anthony G Williams said...

The worst case of leaving readers in the dark I've come across is Vinge's 'A Fire Upon the Deep'. I have reviewed it on this blog (see the link in the reviews index).

Carl V. Anderson said...

TMSD is on of my all-time favorite novels, period. "Relentless" is a great one-word description of the pacing of this novel. It is one that I like to pick up every few years to read because, even when you know what is coming, it is a fantastic read. To a lesser (but not much lesser) extent I feel the same way about The Demolished Man.

Wonderful review, Tony. You've captured the essence of the book, and what I like about the book, so well.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks Carl, I have a special affection for this one and I like to share it!