Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Deep space is my dwelling place, the stars my destination...

The Stars My Destination

Alfred Bester


Reviewed by: Terry
4  out of 5 stars

Gully Foyle is my name
Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination

Sci-fi from its formative days is funny. Not funny ha-ha (not always anyway), but funny-weird…at least for me. I am often unable to get over the clunky writing and wispy plots despite the many cool ideas on display. Sometimes even a premise as cool as a galaxy-spanning empire held together by the prods and pokes of a few cognoscenti using an arcane sociological science still can’t make a plodding plot with artless prose and paper-thin characters readable to me (sorry, Mr. Asimov). At other times the founders of the genre can suffer by comparison to their descendants who have taken the ideas that, while new and fresh when they used them, seem old and tired when you come to the foundational works after seeing them presented elsewhere, often with more compelling characters and well-crafted prose. Then there are books like this one, written by Alfred Bester, and you understand why some classics are still classics.

Gully Foyle is a gutter-boy. A low, brainless brute barely able to act as a Mechanic’s Mate 3rd class on the spaceship ‘Nomad’, oiling and wiping the machines and acknowledged by his superiors to be a human dead end. Then the passing ship ‘Vorga’ left him to rot, the only survivor on a crippled ship in the void. 

    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 sterotype Common Man, was no more. The
     key turned in the lock of his soul and the door was opened.

A purpose had been found that could open up all of the potential this beast-man had within him: vengeance. From here we follow Foyle as he lifts himself out of the pit (physically at least) by his bootstraps and ingeniously contrives both his own rescue and the plans that set him on the path that will allow him to fulfill his oath: “I find you, ‘Vorga’. I find you, I kill you, ‘Vorga’. I kill you filthy.” All the while his spirit stews in the morass from which his body could escape and he becomes a rapist, thug and purveyor of violence in pursuit of his goal. No price is too high to reach it, whether it be imprisonment or social isolation; no obstacle can stand in his way, whether it be the most powerful institutions in the world, or the human dignity of those he uses. Beware, Gully Foyle is on his way.

Bester’s prose is well-wrought and carries us briskly along with Foyle on his quest, from the gutter tongue of the 25th century into which he was born to the more refined prose of the high society parties which Foyle must infiltrate. Bester also does a fine job of describing his world and his ability to portray everything from the rigours of Gully’s six month survival in a broken hulk in deep space a gruelling moment at a time, to the weird and wonderful portrayal of Foyle’s trauma-induced synaesthesia later in the book is astonishing. I was dazzled. There are also more ideas packed into one slim volume than you can shake a stick at and all of them are foundational in the genre: cybernetic implants for physical and mental enhancement, personal teleportation (with many of the social ramifications of its existence worked out in the story), world-ending manufactured compounds that leave the future of humanity lying on a knife’s edge, a world controlled by pseudo-feudal multinational corporations, a forgotten society of future primitives living on a lonely asteroid, tattooing their faces with hideous designs, and worshipping a debased form of the scientific method…and the list goes on. Why were they able, at their best, to do this kind of thing in the old days in one slim volume, while today a writer would have taken half of these ideas, or even one, and written a two thousand page multi-volume epic out of it? Add to that the cast of characters that are almost all equally memorable and well-drawn: the megalomaniac Presteign of Presteign, a man of wealth and power cognisant of little save his own desires and dignity; his equally powerful daughter, the beautiful blind albino Olivia, an ice-princess who sees the world in the infra-red and electro-magnetic spectrums and carries her own dark secrets; the memorably named Jisbella McQueen (Jiz to her friends, thanks very much) a criminal miscreant both attracted to and repulsed by Foyle;  and the man with the death’s head smile, Saul Dagenham, a scientist made ‘hot’ by an accident that has left him a radioactive outcast, able to interact with others in only a limited way.

I must admit that, while I thoroughly enjoyed this book from the start, I was minded to give it a three star rating until I came to the climax and Bester managed to turn a scarred, brutal criminal into an altruistic saviour for a mankind as lost and directionless as he had been. One key had turned and made Gully Foyle into a remorseless machine for vengeance, another equally harsh set of trials then took this driven creature and made him into someone able to see the root of humanity’s need and try his best to give them the key to their own awakening. 

     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.

What a great read. Highly recommended.

(Bester also gets extra points for having written the silver age Green Lantern oath, a ditty almost as cool as the one quoted above about Gully Foyle.)

Also posted at Goodreads

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