Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Until recently I hadn’t read The Stars My Destination in years, or perhaps even decades. It was first published in 1956 when I was three years old. One of the amazing things about this novel is that it hasn’t aged since then. It can still stand up to the best of contemporary work. The ideas and concepts in it are still outrageously but effectively outlandish – in a good way. It definitely deserves to be on a shortlist of the best science fiction novels ever written.

I’m not going to be able to give you a proper synopsis of the story; it is too intricate and convoluted. By saying that, I don’t mean that it is confusing. Bester throws one thing after another at readers, but it all fits in like infinitesimal pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle.

The protagonist is a man named Gulliver Foyle, or Gully for short, who is barely surviving a death-like existence in spaceship wreckage in a remote part of the solar system. Another spaceship passes him by despite his array of distress signals, and Gully becomes consumed with rage and a desire for vengeance. He manages to get his ruined spaceship, the Nomad, running well enough to make it to an asteroid, where the resident cult pulls him in and tattoos his face with the grotesque visage of a savage tiger. Later a surgeon manages to remove the tattoos, but whenever Gully gets angry or otherwise deeply emotional, the tiger image shows up again on his face. (The original British title of this novel was Tiger! Tiger! in homage to the William Blake poem “The Tiger.”)

This is just the barest glimpse of the beginning of the story. There are incredibly rich industrialists, duplicitous lawyers, clever intelligence operators, female criminal masterminds, and other fascinating characters. Gully has to escape from a prison built in deep underground caverns that are in perpetual darkness, steal a fortune in the Nomad‘s safe, and pose as an ultra-rich buffoon. The plot hinges, though, on a practice known as jaunting, or teleportation, which most people are able to learn to do.

As I said, I’m not going to give too much of the story away, not because it would take too long, but because I want to give you the opportunity to discover it for yourself. Bester is a master craftsman when it comes to writing. He knows what to put in and what to leave out. He’ll end a chapter and begin the next from a completely different perspective or point of view. There’s nothing extraneous in it at all. Every word is effective. At one point, words don’t do the subject justice, and so Bester turns the words into images, having them float or bounce or increase and decrease in size on the page. A wild ride, to be sure, but an excellent one.

There is nothing to which The Stars My Destination can be compared. It is a one-of-a-kind work of genius, so effective and provocative and radical and insightful and original and fun and entertaining and elevating that it stands out as an absolutely unique achievement. Give it a read and you’ll see what I mean.

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2 Responses to Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

  1. Lawrence Reh says:

    Growing up, I caught the wave of all the classic scifi masters: Frederick Pohl, Clifford Simak, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, etc. — got to know Ray Bradbury while living in Los Angeles. They pretty much spoiled me for the later technicians who knew more about science than story-telling, Scott Card being an exception. With that in mind, which of your books do you think would most appeal to me as a starter?

    • John Walters says:

      My books really don’t qualify as traditional science fiction (I grew up as a student of the New Wave – some of my Clarion West teachers were Harlan Ellison and Ursula Le Guin), but you might try After the Fireflood as a good start.

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