He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity.
"A word of warning", writes Neil Gaiman in his introduction to the Gollancz masterworks edition of Alfred Bester's (1913-1987) The Stars My Destination (1956); "the vintage of the book demands more work from the reader than he or she may be used to". The observation isn't without foundation, even if Gaiman seems to want to apply it chiefly to the book's depiction of sex and sexual violence, such as a scene in which the preternaturally angry protagonist, Gully Foyle, rapes a teacher working at the mental hospital he is temporarily ensconced in. "Were it written now," Gaiman says, "its author would have shown us the rape, not implied it". Oddly enough, I was just fine with Bester drawing a veil over said scene, but in reading it I did have to make allowances for the book's 'vintage' - in the sense of choosing to believe that it was a much less tired trope, back in 1956, to create a female character who exists solely to be raped by the anti-hero/villain, in order to demonstrate just how bad and unhinged said anti-hero/villain is (and how edgy you are, you brave writer you).
As Graham Sleight has discussed, with characteristic insightfulness, The Stars My Destination is indeed a book of its time, in ways that can be both frustrating and thrilling. On balance, the latter certainly outweighed the former, for me, in no small part because of the ways in which Bester subverts his time's expectations of what science fiction could do and what it should look like; as Graham puts it, "Bester's legacy to the field is his daring". Stars has an irresistible dark energy that is like nothing else from the period. There is a manic gleam in the novel's narrative eye as it lays bare the flaws and weaknesses of its damaged central character, "one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead", who is on a quest for revenge - the beats of the plot rework the Count of Monte Cristo - and animated by such extreme, outlandish hatred that it comes to dwarf the original wrong that was done to him. And then the novel dives headlong into experimental typesetting as a way to convey Foyle's metastasizing powers over time and space. Obviously.
First published in the UK under the title Tiger! Tiger!, from the opening words of the William Blake poem whose opening stanza Bester uses as his epigraph, Stars bears certain uncomfortable emblems of a different age: female characters who are, to a woman, pedestaled, infantilised, victimised, and/or pathologised; and a villain, Olivia Presteign, whose main motivation for villainy is bitterness and generalised misanthropy caused by disability. "'I cheat, I lie, I destroy'", she says; "'I'm criminal'". When Foyle asks her why, she replies:
"For hatred ... To pay you back, all of you."
"For being blind," she said in a smoldering voice. "For being cheated. For being helpless ... They should have killed me when I was born. Do you know what it's like to be blind ... to receive life secondhand? To be dependent, begging, crippled? 'Bring them down to your level,' I told my secret life. 'If you're blind make them blinder. If you're helpless, cripple them. Pay them back ... all of them.'"
These passages are a tough read, and while the blindness of Olivia, "a glorious albino", is made interestingly sfnal - visible light is lost to her, but she can see in infrared ("She saw the drawing room as a pulsating flow of heat emanations ranging from hot highlights to cool shadows. [...] She saw, around each head, an aura of the faint electromagnetic brain pattern and, sparkling through the heat radiation of each body, the everchanging tone of muscle and nerve") - this all smacks a bit too much of Disability Superpowers.
But at least in terms of the presentation and treatment of female characters, there are enough hooks in the novel to enable the present-day reader to read against the dominant narrative. Jisbella, Gully's ally in the escape from the eternal darkness of Gouffre Martel prison, is capable and smart and great fun, for all that Gully calls her "girl" all the time, and her name tends to get shortened to 'Jiz'. Moreover, Gully's fastidious horror at the discovery of the evil of Olivia, "his Snow Maiden, his beloved Ice Princess" with "white satin skin" and "blind coral eyes", is hilariously - and surely deliberately - hypocritical in context, given the rape and murder and gleefully callous violence we watch him carry out over the course of the novel. ("You're a monster", says Gully, aghast; "We're both monsters", replies Olivia, with some justification.) It is a patriarchal double-standard writ large, and one undercut by the novel. The fact that there are also female characters, plural, puts Stars instantly ahead of about 90% of the sf I've read that was contemporary with it: even if any one, or several, of the women are mad and evil, or beautiful and innocent, there are enough other characters that it does not feel like the novel is saying this is everything a woman can be, or all the role a woman can play.
And the truth is that all the characters, male and female alike, stand in the shadow of Gully Foyle's gleaming heart of darkness. In "an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks", when "all the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways", Foyle is the most virulent grotesque of them all. A lowly, unskilled cog in the vastly complex system of a space ship, the Nomad, Foyle is described at the start of the novel as "big boned and rough", "sluggish and indifferent", and "too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love". (Bester likes to create emphasis by piling up rhythmic collections of sub-clauses like this.) This is all about to change, however.
When we meet Gully Foyle, his ship is a wreck drifting in space, and he is the only survivor. He keeps himself alive by sealing himself up inside the only remaining airtight space on the ship: a storage locker four feet by four feet by nine feet ("the size of a giant's coffin"). Once a week, he makes a space-suited foray beyond the locker to replenish his oxygen supply from those of the ship's tanks, a helpless, race-against-time "game of space roulette": until he connects up a new tank in his locker he has no way of knowing whether or not it still contains oxygen, and if it doesn't, he won't have enough air in his suit to go back for another.
The stress, not surprisingly, is taking its toll; he sings crazed little ditties to himself ("Gully Foyle is my name / And Terra is my nation. / Deep space is my dwelling place / And death's my destination"), and both his self-image and the narrative's physical description of him are shaped by his much changed, and much degraded, state of mind. He sees himself reflected in the polished chrome of a broken door:
Gully Foyle, a giant black creature, bearded, crusted with dried blood and filth, emaciated, with sick, patient eyes ... and followed always by a stream of floating debris, the raffle disturbed by his motion and following him through space like the tail of a festering comet.
He can hardly believe his eyes when he catches sight of another spaceship, the Vorga; still less when it ignores his efforts to hail it, and passes him by:
So, in five seconds, he was born, he lived, and he died. After thirty years of existence and six months of torture, Gully Foyle, the stereotype Common Man, was no more. The key turned in the lock of his soul and the door was opened. What emerged expunged the Common Man forever.
"You pass me by," he said with slow mounting fury. "You leave me rot like a dog. You leave me die, Vorga... No. I get out of here, me. I follow you, Vorga. I find you, Vorga. I pay you back, me. I rot you. I kill you, Vorga. I kill you filthy."
The acid of fury ran through him, eating away the brute patience and sluggishness that had made a cipher of Gully Foyle, precipitating a chain of reactions that would make an infernal machine of Gully Foyle. He was dedicated.
He is, Bester tells us, "inspired to greatness by Vorga". Such is the force of his thirst for revenge that he is able to not only survive, but save himself, and then gradually remake himself into the perfect vessel of his vengeful rage: identifying and hunting down anyone with a connection to Vorga, then infiltrating their communities and homes and institutions in pursuit of his goal. His adventures are many, and not infrequently quite bizarre. He gets a great big tiger-stripe face tattoo (very nicely depicted on the cover of a recent UK promotional reprint, shown on the left) during a period spent among a meteor-dwelling community, which has been so long isolated from the rest of humankind they've developed elaborate religious rituals centred around garbled versions of scientific concepts of which they've lost all knowledge but the names. He is interrogated via a hallucinatory mental torture chamber known as the Nightmare Theatre, by shadowy figures keen to know where he left the Nomad, and with its precious secret cargo of uber-weapons, but is "inoculated" against this treatment by his utterly single-minded fixation with the Vorga. He has a stint in the disturbingly echoing darkness of a solitary cell in Gouffre Martel super-prison, learning by heart the reforming lectures that are played constantly to the inmates, and slowly losing his grip on reality:
He lost count of the days, of meals, of sermons. [...] His mind came adrift and he began to wander. He imagined he was back aboard Nomad, reliving his fight for survival. Then he lost even this feeble grasp on illusion and began to sink deeper and deeper into the pit of catatonia: of womb silence, womb darkness, and womb sleep.
Everywhere is larger than life - vast catacombs, enormous cities, the obscene mansions of the uber-rich - and almost everywhere echoes the place of Foyle's rebirth in various ways: he repeatedly encounters small confined niches in huge, dark, indifferent spaces, from the "womb silence" of the prison to the "wombgloom" of the Mars catacombs. His developing ability to jaunte cuts against this, holding out the possibility that there will come a time when he can no longer be confined in that way - but for much of the novel, of course, his primary prison is in his mind, both in terms of the uncontrollable physical and mental reaction that being trapped provokes in him, and also in the way he is unable to break out of the revenge mission, whether to protect or conceal himself, or to save his erstwhile partner-in-crime, Jizbella, when her life is threatened (even though he wants to).
Chief among the milieux previously alien to Foyle is the high society in which Olivia Presteign and her family live, a world "devoted to the principle of conspicuous waste", for which Foyle creates an entire new persona for himself as a flamboyant wastrel named Fourmyle of Ceres. In a future where people need only exert a little mental energy to teleport themselves to places they can accurately picture in their minds (a practice known as 'jaunting'), conspicuous consumption means doing things slowly, physically, and visibly:
Presteign of Presteign had fitted his Victorian mansion in Central Park with elevators, house phones, dumb-waiters and all the other labor-saving devices which jaunting had made obsolete. The servants in that giant gingerbread castle walked dutifully from room to room, opening and closing doors, and climbing stairs.
Foyle/Fourmyle, therefore, makes a splash and gets himself invited to all the best parties with some very fine "conspicuous transportation", involving no fewer than four different means of physically moving, the last of which involves being shot out of a cannon through the window of a car.
As we might expect, in the process of working towards his goal and adopting different selves to do so, "harried, delighted, savage" Foyle is changed, and comes to question - to a degree - what he's doing. He's never reformed, as such, but he does become more than the sum of his initial parts. Put another way, he goes through a typesetting apotheosis and jauntes off into space, but not before giving humanity a super-weapon it could use to destroy itself. A bonkers, often brilliant book.