I must have been in my early teens when I came across A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher. It wasn’t ALL great, but a pretty large percentage of it was, including the four novels that began and ended each of the two volumes. And, in my opinion, the best novel was saved for last: The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester.
Bester wasn’t one of the brightest stars of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction that began in the 1930’s when John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding Science Fiction, and began emphasizing literarty quality along with good science and fictional ideas, but he was still a star, with quite a number of arresting short stories, as well as two novels published in the 1950’s. The Stars My Destination was the second of those, and his best work overall, in my opinion. Sometime after it was published he worked fulltime for a magazine, took a long vacation from science fiction, but then returned, 15 or 20 years later, after the magazine folded, to write some more novels, which weren’t bad, but, in my opinion, weren’t quite as good either.
This novel is built on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, which I had already enjoyed. Like its model, it takes a fairly ordinary man, unjustly imprisons him, and turns him bitter and vengeful. In Bester’s novel the time is in the future, and (as usual) there’s a war going on. The solar system has been colonized, and the Inner Planets and Outer Satellites are at war for reasons no better than the usual. But death and universal destruction threaten, which gives the primary characters a certain amount of motivation.
The other main feature of the story is “jaunting”, which is the ability of people to teleport themselves from one place to another. A large number of people have learned to do this, which has destabilized society, as people are no longer isolated in their home countries. They can and do travel the world, bringing a wave of crime, among other things. But ability to jaunte is limited. No one can jaunte more than 1000 miles at a time, they have to know where they are, and where they’re trying to go. Some have tried to jaunte through outer space, but have never come back.
The main character, Gully Foyle, is motivated by revenge, though. He begins the book as a very ordinary man, who has sort of coasted through life, but now is marooned in a wrecked spaceship, going through a dangerous routine just to survive. Mere survival is the only thing on his horizon, until a spaceship passes by. He shoots of flares, yells and screams (useless in the vacuum of space), but the ship passes him by. Suddenly he is inspired to punish that action, finds a way to make the ship’s engines fire, and eventually is rescued and returned to civilization.
His first attempt at revenge is to try to blow up the ship that passed him by. He fails, and is drawn into the drama behind the scenes of the war. People want something from him, he can’t understand what, and lands in prison. Coincidence brings him in contact with an inmate of the women’s section of the prison: for some reason they can hear each other from a great distance, and she becomes the teacher to Foyle that the Abbe was to Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. Here the story diverges though, as Foyle and the woman with whom he’s fallen in love escape prsion together, unlike Dantes, who only gets his chance to escape when his teacher, the Abbe dies. Foyle has meanwhile discovered one reason why people want information from hm: 20 million credits worth of platinum bullion in the ship he’d been marooned in. That ship has been cemented into an asteroid where Foyle had landed, and been tattooed on the face by the savage people living there. He had escaped in another ship. Now he and the woman head for the asteroids to find the platinum.
When they arrive, they find the ship, get the safe out, then find they’ve been followed. They manage to get the safe into their ship, but it’s so big it blocks the cargo door, so the woman can’t get aboard. Unwilling to be captured, Foyle blasts off and leaves her behind.
When next seen, he has transformed himself. His tattoos have been removed, leaving scars beneath his facial skin, which show blood-red when he gets emotional, so he’s learned to control his considerable emotions. He’s also become something of a showman, spending money voluminously to gain attention so he can travel around the world finding out just why the spaceship didn’t stop to pick him up. Jisbella McQueen, the woman he met in prison, had pointed out to him that the ship itself had nothing to do with what had happened. He had to find out who gave the orders to leave him behind, and why. That is what he sets out to do, in disguise, but disguises are only good for so long, and the people hunting him before become aware of who he is, and are hunting him again.
Meanwhile, the Outer Satellites have been bombing the Inner Planets, so the Inner Planets are getting desperate. During a bombing attack on Earth, he meets the daughter of a magnate, who is beautiful, but can only see in wavelengths that most of us cannot. She doesn’t have normal sight, and though beautiful, she’s also enraged, though she doesn’t often show it. Foyle meets her, falls in love, but then must leave, driven by his obsession with finding the brain behind his desertion. He follows another lead, which takes him to Mars, where he kidnaps a telepath to tell him what the former captain of the ship knows. The captain is a Skoptsy, of a sect that originated in Russia, believing that sexuality was the root of sin, and castrating themselves. In the 24th century, they now believe that sensation is the root of sin, and the captain has entered a monastery after having her (unusually in that culture, the captain is a woman) nervous system turned off. She can’t feel, hear, nor speak, so telepathy is the only way to get her knowledge.
But the telepath is uncooperative. Instead, Foyle is confronted by hinself, in flames, who tells him who the person was that gave the order to pass his spaceship by. It’s the woman he’s only just fallen in love with. He is devastated by the knowledge, but immediately after that discovery, the telepath calls for help, help arrives, and he’s about to be captured when Mars is bombarded by the Outer Satellites. This gives him the chance to escape, but he drives his spaceship so hard he passes out. He wakes to find the woman he loves has rescued him.
Now conscience assails him. He realizes both he and the woman he loves are monsters, and seeks punishment by confessing to a lawyer. But the lawyer is an agent of the Outer Satellites, who wants the secred of PyrE, a material tremendously explosive, which had also been carried by Foyle’s ship, and which can be exploded by Will and Idea: a telepath who wishes fervently enough can explode it. This, after the principal actors pursuing Foyle consult, a telepath does. The lawyer has taken him to the ancient cathedral in New York City where his headquarters currently is, and where a small amount of PyrE is exposed. There’s PyrE in other corners of the world too, but most of it is there, and that amount explodes. There isn’t enough to completely destroy the cathedral, but there’s enough to ravage it, start a destructive fire, and melt a large amount of copper which threatens to engulf Foyle, who is dazed, trapped, and hurled into a condition called synesthesia, in which his senses become cross-wired, so that he hears movement, tastes different materials around him, and so on. Dazed as he is, he tries to escape, and jauntes, but not from one place to another–rather into his past. He’s unable to escape the flames until the telepath who set off the blast explains what he must do. When he wakes up he’s with the people who have been pursuing him.
They want the PyrE from him, and he questions why he should give it to them. The magnate offers him money and power, and, under prodding, his daughter, with whom Foyle has fallen in love. Another man offers him glory, and to excuse his crimes. The woman he left behind in the asteroids explains to him what PyrE is, and urges him to destroy it. But the head of government Intelligence wants something else from him.
Foyle has never been able to remember how he became trapped in the spaceship. Now he’s told that his ship had been disabled by the Outer Satellites, and he had been removed from it, and stranded in a spacesuit where he might lure Inner Planets ships to be desroyed. This ploy hadn’t worked because he had space-jaunted 600,000 miles back to his spaceship. Intelligence wants to find out how he did it. He asks each of them if they’re willing to follow the logic of what they’ve proposed. Is the magnate willing to give his daughter up to the law to be tried for murder? Will the telepath forgive that daughter for murdering her mother and sisters? Is Foyle to allow PyrE to be used against the Outer Satellites to turn his name into another synonym for monstrous behavior? No one answers. Except for a servant robot, apparently deranged by radiation, who suddenly speaks like a philosopher. It tells him that man is a member of society first, an individual second, and must go along with society, even if it chooses destruction. He may disagree, but must teach, not dictate. He must live, not expecting society to stop because he wants to, and if he wants a deeper meaning, must find it in himself. The robot then collapses.
So Foyle jauntes to the gutted cathedral, gets the rest of the PyrE out of the safe, and starts jaunting around the world, throwing pellets of PyrE to the crowds, and exhorting them to find out what it is. The people he’s been talking to follow him, telling him he’s crazy, that ordinary people can’t be trusted with a secret like that. “We’re driven,” says one, “We’re forced to seize the responsibility that the average man shirks.”
“Then let him stop shirking it. Let him stop tossing his duty and guilt onto the shoulders of the first freak who comes along grabbing at it….”
“D’you want to die in their ignorance? You’ve got to figure out how we can get those slugs back without blowing everything wide open.”
“No, I believe in them. I was one of them before I turned tiger. They can all turn uncommon if they’re kicked awake like I was.”
He jauntes to the top of a statue above Piccadilly Circus.
“Listen a me, all you! Listen, man! Gonna sermonize, me. Dig this, you. You pigs, you. You goof like pigs, is all. You got the most in you, and you use the least. You hear me, you? Got a million in you and spend pennies. Got a genius in you and think crazies. Got a heart in you and fell empties. All a you. Every you…”
“Take a war to make you spend. Take a jam to make you think. Take a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around lazy, you. Pigs, you! All right, God damn you! I challenge you, me. Die or live and be great. Blow yourselves to Christ gone or come and find me, Gully Foyle, and I make you men. I make you great. I give you the stars.”
He jauntes then, but is unable to go where he wants to go. It can be done, he thinks, it must be done. I believe. I have faith.
He tries again and fails again.
‘”Faith in what?” he asked himself, adrift in limbo.
‘”Faith in faith,” he answered himself. “It isn’t necessary to have something to believe in. It’s only necessary to believe that somewhere there’s something worthy of belief.”‘
Then he jauntes to one great star after another that mankind has looked up at and revered for millenia, then finally back to the asteroid from which he had escaped, now in a trance as his whole organism tries to assimilate what he’s experienced. There he is found, and hte priest there says, “He is dreaming. I, a priest, know these dreams. Presently he will awaken and reat to us, his people, his thoughts.”
The book ends there, with Foyle apparently about to become a prophet.
This isn’t a perfect piece of writing, but it’s suffused with a momentum that carries the reader with it to the end. It’s an evolutionary story in which a man begins as nothing and becomes human, then something beyond the ordinary human. It’s a story always applicable to current events, in which humans usually show their worst sides, and all to rarely transcend themselves to become something great. Ordinary people are always lied to, always condescended to by those with power, those who are driven. The exception is the driven person who refuses to be seduced by power and tries to bring others to the higher ground he or she may have found.
I was amazed and inspired by this novel, but didn’t take its lesson, and never accomplished what I could have. But the lesson is still there for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. It’s a novel I’d recommend to anyone. The lesson speaks for itself.