The Burning Man opened his tiger mouth. A grating sound emerged. It was like flaming laughter.

“She hurts,” he said.

We’ve been a bit content-lite this week, with so many genre shows on hiatus, so I’m posting this review of one of the classics of SF literature. Alfred Bester won the first Hugo for The Demolished Man and wrote the Green Lantern Oath for DC comics, but many feel his greatness lies in this book, a complex tale of revenge, teleportation, and a prophetic Burning Man.

A movie is in the works for 2012, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Title: The Stars My Destination

Author: Alfred Bester
ISBN: 0679767800, 978-0679767800
First published: 1957.

Also published as Tiger! Tiger!

Available from Amazon.com
and
Amazon.ca

Premise:

“He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead”(14), and Gully Foyle, a spacewrecked Mechanic’s Mate, swears revenge against the ship that could have saved him and instead passed him by. Foyle’s vengeance sends him on a terrific jaunte through “a fascinating century of freaks”(1) where few things are as they appear.

High Points:

As with a good many older SF books that have survived, the concepts remain with the reader even when aspects of the story or characterization fail. These include speculative ideas about the future of humanity and satiric social commentary. The Stars My Destination has a foundational place in the history of SF.

I cannot give away the events on Mars without spoiling the book. It begins with Foyle kidnapping a geriatric infant telepath from its nannies and breaking into the realm of the Skoptsies, perhaps Bester’s most bizarre and thought-provoking creations.

Low Points:

The cheesy and somewhat overwritten prologue provides background information but it really doesn’t prepare the reader for the book, and may turn a few people away. I’m not certain it would hurt to start at Chapter One.

I understand, in terms of its effect, why Foyle has the particular problem with his scars but, given the technology evident in the book, it seems a stretch that no one could correct the tell-tale difficulty. Of course, the science in this book will seem more than a little wonky to many readers. This must be read in the context of 1950s SF.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6. Granted, the story’s underlying premise strongly recalls The Count of Monte Cristo, but from there Bester takes the reader on a remarkable and original odyssey. One can see Bester’s influence in writers as diverse as William Gibson and Dan Simmons. Aspects seem familiar mostly because where later writers went, Bester had so often already been.

Imagery: 6/6. Aspects of this future will stay with me for a very long time.

Story: 4/6. I enjoyed the twists, the poetic stretching and bending of reality. The book becomes silly in places, but it holds together, provides the reader with developments both fun and terrifying, and it paved the way for many later, more literary SF writers. I had some problems with the ending, but I can’t say I was disappointed.

Characterization: 4/6. The book features several memorable characters, though only the protagonist has been developed with any depth. Many readers will find this particular character-journey a little far-fetched, however, even in the context of this book.

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 5/6.

Of Geoffey Fourmyle of Ceres, an enigmatic bon vivant introduced in Part Two, we read:

The scarlet underwear began melting…. Inside his tent, Fourmyle changed his clothes, changed his mind, changed again, undressed again, kicked his valets, called for his tailor in a bastard tongue of French, Mayfair, and affectation. Halfway into his new suit, he recollected he had neglected to bathe. He slapped his tailor, ordered ten gallons of scent to be decanted into the pool, and was stricken with poetic inspiration. He summoned the resident poet(94).

Bester’s prose even veers into concrete poetry, with the bizarre typographic effects that mark a certain character’s movement backwards through his own timeline.

Overall score: 5/6 No one would be surprised to discover that a book written in the 1950s has dated badly in a few areas. And I can barely fathom how Bester’s version of teleportation (among other aspects) qualified as scientific speculation. What I find remarkable about The Stars My Destination, however, is how well it holds up overall, half a century later.

In total, The Stars My Destination receives 34/42

Babylon Five named a character for Bester. The Burning Man’s journey would be echoed and imitated by time-travel writers who came after, in an episode of Deep Space Nine, and in Crisis on Infinite Earths. What I want to know is, did Bester in any way influence the shaping of Black Rock City?