(Review) The Stars My Destination

“The Stars My Destination,” second in my five-book formal tour of the history of science fiction, is a work of extremes, which makes it hard to say anything balanced about it. What it does well, it does very well. The rest is flat pulp, the equivalent of an off-brand cola. But since Bester doesn’t dawdle, the flat bits never last very long — none of it lasts very long — and so pushing through does not require a Herculean effort, as with some modern writers.

In that way, “The Stars My Destination” reminded me a lot of my first book, FANTASMAGORIA — which is fitting considering that the latter is an homage to mid-century pulp. Both books have unsympathetic protagonists. Both feature a radioactive man (which I thought was a fun coincidence). And both are “overly paced,” where almost every chapter offers some kind of twist or escape.

This is both a benefit and an affliction. While superficially exciting, it’s very difficult to fill a novel with one dramatic escape after another. By necessity, some of them end up beggaring belief, or being outright silly. Take the escape from the underground prison. Although the final flight from the guards was salvaged somewhat by the revelation at the end of the burning man, the whole bit before that, with the phantom echo and Foyle meeting the unfortunately named Jisbella and how they fall in love over the space of three paragraphs, not to mention Foyle crashing through the place to find her, struck me as horribly forced. (So much so, I assumed it was a setup to make him think he escaped and so lead Jisbella to the PyrE.)

Same for Foyle’s escape from the commandos, who we were told not only had equivalent technology but superior numbers and training. By the time the burning man saved Foyle for the umpteenth time on the Spanish Steps, it was all getting a bit tedious, and the dramatic twist with Olivia at the end was such a limp-wristed sucker punch that I almost lol’d. Not only did it land softly, it came out of nowhere and made no sense. What was she doing out there exactly? And why? From then on, for the last forty pages or so, I was reading simply to see how it ended.

But as I said, it was a very uneven book. At other points, the reverse was true. Foyle’s escape from the asteroid with the inert lead safe, for example, where he abandons Jisbella to their pursuers, rang very true, not only to the characters but to the physics of motion in space, which was still new to the public when the book was written (in the 1950s). Similarly, the tragedy of Foyle’s introduction was brilliant. In a handful of pages, Bester creates a stark yet believable motivation, where Foyle, the archetypal mediocre man, is existing aboard the wreck of the Nomad, not through any great will but simply through a kind of undead monotony, a repetition of behaviors designed to keep him alive but with no thought or purpose. When that’s broken by the chance of rescue, the incomprehensible inhumanity of his abandonment makes him reject humanity altogether and turn into the tiger.

In that way, the infamous rape scene, which apparently bothers some people, seemed to me to fit the character entirely. Foyle is man reduced to animal. (Could the tattoo make that any clearer?) Bester even portrays the proper motivation for a sexual assault: power rather than sex. I’m not saying its inclusion made this a “good” book. In fact, it made me dislike Foyle so much that I didn’t much care what happened to him. I’m simply saying it didn’t feel out of place in the story. It was appropriately horrific.

The more damning problem was how the breakneck pace kept us from the more brilliant parts of the fictional world. I wanted to know more about the science cult on the junk asteroid, for example. Their Biblical reverence for the Word of science with no appreciation for the meaning is a witty and incisive critique, not just of religion but popular scientism as well. And “Quant Suff!” has to be one of the cleverest replacements for Amen I’ve ever seen! Had Foyle been allowed to recuperate there for any length of time, not only would we have gotten to see more of that culture, his later return would have been that much more dramatic.

But more than anything, the biggest limitation of the book by far is that it’s pitched as the greatest single sci-fi novel of all time. (That didn’t come from any of you. I got a number of recommendations, including this one, and I researched them on my own before making my five selections.) The blurb from the publisher, the quotes from other authors on the cover, blog posts on the internet, and the essay by Neil Gaiman at the beginning all billed “The Stars My Destination” as a modern masterpiece.

It might have been at the time. I’ll say that again lest someone reading too quickly not stop to contemplate the importance of that admission. It very well might have been a masterpiece at the time. But if so, it hasn’t aged well, a fact made clear to me by having just read “War with the Newts,” which is older still and hasn’t aged a day. The latter really is a modern classic, and I now count it as one of my favorite books of all time. That’s a hard act to follow, especially given that “The Stars My Destination” gets top billing.

I can’t help but wonder if new generations of sci-fi fans continue to read this book for the same reason the literati keep reading “Moby Dick.” Like “The Stars My Destination,” “Moby Dick” is very uneven. It remains the only fiction I’ve ever read with a pencil in hand for underlining, as I do for all nonfiction, because some of Melville’s passages are utterly brilliant. Sadly, those are islands in an ocean of gray-sky words, and despite at least two attempts, I’ve never been able to finish the book.

But smart people continue to read “Moby Dick” because they’re supposed to read it, because if they don’t, they’re considered to have incomplete knowledge of the canon, and a canon — ANY canon, be it of literature or Doctor Who episodes — functions as a holy writ and so has more to do with indoctrination and inculcation into the elect than any inherent merit. You have to read “The Stars My Destination” to prove you’re properly knowledgeable, to prove you’re “one of us,” and so be allowed to proffer opinions on the rest of the genre in the same way that a graduate of divinity school, having studied a complementary canon, is deemed worthy to minister to a flock and to write sermons on things.

In exactly that way, “The Stars My Destination” was a homework assignment for me. I chose it specifically because it was billed as part of the sci-fi canon, where the whole point of my little self-directed course is the application of lessons to my own craft. Sadly, all the lessons of “The Stars My Destination” are ones I already learned by writing FANTASMAGORIA, to which many of the same criticisms apply. However, reading the one did improve my love for the other. If something like “The Stars My Destination” can be considered canon of the genre, the holiest of the holy, then surely my own book, with all the same warts, is something to be proud of.