BOOK REVIEW: The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • A Standalone Novel
  • First Published in 1956
  • Reprinted under the Gollancz SF Masterworks banner
  • A violent SF thriller
  • 240 pages

Left for dead on a drifting spacecraft, lone survivor Gully Foyle dedicates his existence to revenge. It is a quest that will take him across the solar system, and leave countless ruined lives in his wake . . .

You can, broadly speaking, break the history of science fiction into periods and movements. The Golden Age of the nineteen thirties and forties is a period dominated by the pulp magazines, particular those helmed by John Campbell. A more recent example of a movement is the rise of Afrofuturism (also called African Futurism), which has led to a more diverse field of authors while crossing many genres. Naturally, not all of these movements and periods hold the same level of appeal to every reader. One of my personal blindspots in terms of genre history is the so-called New Wave of the sixties and seventies. This was a movement that essentially brought sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll to science fiction. Given that I am only interested in the last of those three, the New Wave is a movement I’ve generally stayed away from. But as part of my ongoing efforts to explore all the branches of science fiction canon, I am now tackling the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, which features New Waves books rather heavily. The Stars My Destination doesn’t quite fall under that bracket, l but it one of the first footfalls leading to the movement.

The Stars My Destination started off as a pleasant surprise. The opening chapter is a slice of future history chronicling the social changes brought about by the discovery of humanity’s innate ability to teleport. Had I encountered this chapter as a short story, I’d have rushed out to buy more Alfred Bester, no hesitation. The chapter in which we meet Gully Foyle was great too. Bester’s prose is rich without getting in the way of the story he’s telling. It’s fast and fluid, and the fact that each chapter of The Stars My Destination is essentially a short story works to its advantage.

Th pleasantness ends once we meet Gully Foyle. If you’re the sort of person who needs to relate to a character to enjoy a book, you might want to give this one a miss. Because if you find Gully Foyle relatable, I can only assume you’re a psychopath. Yes, he goes through a traumatic ordeal (two of them, in fact), but he is utterly irredeemable as a character. He sexually assaults a woman just to prove a point, and repeatedly uses others to his own advantage before throwing them away like broken toys. Entertaining and thrilling yes, but hopefully not relevant to the reader’s way of life.

All of this is great stuff, and had it not been for one major factor, I would have no problem recommending this book to everyone I know. That problem? The dialogue. The dialogue in this novel is, almost without exception, startlingly bad. Foyle speaks in a slang that is difficult to read, while other characters sound stilted even by the standards of fifties’ science fiction. When it comes to unspoken thoughts (which are plentiful in a book featuring telepaths), everything is spelled out so literally, you’d think Bester had never had an actual thought in his life. Reading the dialogue in this book is at times painful. Almost as painful as Foyle’s synaesthesia-tinged madness in the final act, in which prose breaks down and fonts sprawl across the page like nobody’s reason.

With these grievances taken into account, I can’t say I’m as enthusiastic as I was during that first chapter. The substance is good, but the style is overwhelming.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey
Fallen Dragon, by Peter F. Hamilton
Fury, by Henry Kuttner

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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