Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Stars My Destination

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Science fiction was perfected in 1956 by a little known author whose work is evident in every sci-fi franchise - although he recieves no credit. Modern conventions of social diaspora and hyperscientific mechanics in contemporary science fiction from transporters, space exploration, splinter colonies to updated Shakespearean villanry all come from one man and one story that was first published nearly sixty years ago. This man's name was Alfred Bester. His work went on to define the genre of science fiction.

In The Stars My Destination, the foundations of the story structure recall pre-exisiting literary conventions of Halmet's feigned madness and lust for revenge, notable similarities to Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo and more obviously in quatrain stanza structures (text in four parts like modern verse) are employed in homage to William Blake's Tyger, Tyger. In fact, after being very successfully serialized in Galaxy Magazine in October of 1956 the first edition of Bester's book (now well into it's 20th edition) was entitled Tiger! Tiger!.

The story begins with Gully Foyle of the ship NOMAD. Foyle, a raw and simple-minded man, survives a catastrophic explosion in deep space that killed the NOMAD's crew. Foyle survives in a small "locker", a claustrophobic metal tomb, in which he lives for the next one hundred and seventy days. Isolated in deep space, Foyle begins to lose his mind, then regains it, only to lose it once more as he risks his life for the opportunity for rescue by a strange ship indentified only as the VORGA. The ship inexplicably abandons Foyle aboard the wreck of the NOMAD to a slow death.

As the narrator of his own calamitous story Foyle begins to translate the experience of prolonged isolation in the icy depths of space for the reader:

"Gully Foyle is my name,
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
And death's my destination."

In writing in this morbid, curious manner Bester is no fool. His inspiration comes directly from stanza five of Blake's Tyger Tyger which reads:

"In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What hand dare seize the fire?"

A cold-hearted vengeance begins to dominate Foyle. His new found lust for revenge inspires a desperate attempt at survival as Foyle crashes the drifting hulk of the listing NOMAD into a populated asteroid belt. His rescue from suffocation and starvation is short-lived when he is captured by the denizens of the asteroid belt, sub-Mutants, charming inarticulate devolved humanoids that want Foyle to mate with one of their females...

Foyle quickly makes his way across the solar system forcing a barely spaceworthy vessel from the asteroid belt. As he purues the VORGA he encounters a wide variety of characters including Telesends, a kind of one-way telepath and Neo-Skoptsies who resemble Christopher Pike styled cyborgs living as tended vegetables on Mars. Foyle learns he is unable to travel by "jaunt" a popular kind of futuristic and instanteous teleportation. To complicate matters, Foyle also is haunted by an apparition - a semi-transparent, ghostly, burning man. All the while Foyle seeks his revenge on the VORGA and it's holding company: a collosal and corrupt Terra based corporation.

In spite of all it's formidable strengths - The Stars Are My Destination is not the perfect sci-fi novel. At times, the book is as rough-hewn as Gully Foyle himself. When the story was finished in 1956, contemporary writer Damon Knight (who was the first to publish Frank Herbert's Dune) described the novel's "bad taste, inconsistency, irrationality, and downright factual errors", but also called the book "grotesquely moving" in a now defunct Chicago-based trade book called In Search of Wonder. The Stars My Destination became a blue print for the next 100 years of science fiction, horror and cyber punk books. It has shaped Star Wars, Event Horizon, The Matrix, Star Trek, Bladerunner and many, many more scripts that quote Bester's imagination and insight page after page.

Wikipedia, Alfred Bester
Wikipedia, The Stars My Destination
Infinity+, The Stars My Destination
Bartleby, Tyger! Tyger! by William Blake
Bombastico, The Stars My Destination

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