Review | The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The Stars My Destination

The Stars My Destination is one of the more memorable books I’ve read in recent years, as well as one of my favorites. Written by Hugo winner Alfred Bester in the mid-1950s, the short novel,  stays away from the technobabble and neologisms that might date it and as a result it retains potency decades after publication.  As Neil Gaiman says in a foreword to the edition I read, many sci-fi novels are out-of-date within a few years, but this one manages to be relevant today and will for many years.

That said, it’s not for everyone.

The story opens on anti-hero Gully Foyle  marooned in space, far from Earth or any other planet from whence rescue might come, and the action quickly rises as Foyle discovers powers almost magical in nature hiding within him, but released by the stress and strain of likely death.

Gravelly, violent, and raw, the plot is in your face and wastes no time with excess story or meandering character development, to say nothing of description. Bester tells you exactly what Gully is, and Gully is as predictable as intended. The rest of the characters tend to be paper thin, but the point of the story is the story, not the characters.

Though violent, there is a point to Bester’s prescient tale, and it makes the The Stars My Destination worth the reading, even as bleak Bester paints the future world. Gully, the desperate, violent, and vengeful every-man  discovers and uncovers a simple truth, a truth of power, of corruption, and the danger of unparalleled weapons in the hands of the few, rather that of the many. Perhaps it was due to the zeitgeist of the 1950s, an era that saw the proliferatoin of nuclear weapons and the start of the superpower arms race. Reading The Stars My Destination and considering the ’50s, one is reminded of comments often attributed to Albert Einstein. When asked about the future of a nuclear armed world, he said “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Around this same time, J.R.R. Tolkien was publishing his “The Lord of the Rings,” also a story that has been noted for its analogical relationship to nuclear weapons.

That power corrupts has become a truism, but that power unfettered can destroy us completely is perhaps a lesson we can remember more aptly. Bester wrote science fiction, but like Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein, his real subject was human nature. As Daniel Abraham has observed, the solar system of Gully Foyle is populated with real people, not the steely eye rocketmen classic science fiction is perhaps famous for. “With all of their greed, and racism, and pettiness intact.  Gully is the extreme of all of that, but none of the other characters that appear are without their flaws.  They don’t see themselves as the brave pioneers of the future.   They are worried about money, and sex, and power.”

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Overall Rating: 4 of 5 stars false

Parent’s guide: This is a book that would be great for discussion by a high school or college level class, but the content is gritty and mature.

  • Sex: Discussion of sex
  • Violence: This is a violent book, albeit in no way gratuitously.
  • Language: none

Click through to buy The Stars My Destination from Amazon and Attack of the Books will get a (small) portion of the purchase (which we’ll use to buy more books, of course).

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.

  • http://twitter.com/redhead5318 Little Red Reviewer

    I’ve been meaning to read Bester for ages, and it looks like Stars my Destination was recently reprinted? that should make a copy a little easier to find!

    I love the differences in speculative fiction that was written before 1955 vs what was written after. I have just barely enough knowledge of this to be really really dangerous, there is a marked direction change, from more hopeful fiction to darker more dystopic fiction. It’s a reflection of how so many people saw the world. Before WWII, everything was possible. after that, we knew the horrors we were capable of. and, um, that about sums up my knowledge of the whole thing!

    • http://publiusonline.com Daniel Burton

      It’s a short, fast read, Little Red, and I recommend it. We’ve got a great library system here in Salt Lake, so I lucked out in being able to pick up a copy.

      As for differences between before and after World War II in the themes and sentiments in fantasy and science fiction, I agree. I recently finished reading The Hobbit for the umpteenth time, and I was struck by how much more light and upbeat it is relative to LOTR. Then I looked at the publication date, and I couldn’t help but see a correlation between The Hobbit’s pre-war publication and LOTR’s post-war writing.

      If we take this just a bit further, I wonder if the explosion of zombie literature in recent years is not something of a response to 9/11 and the feeling that apocalypse and death can strike in impersonal and unexpectedly horrifying ways. Stay tuned for a review of Max Brooks’ World War Z in coming days.

      • http://twitter.com/redhead5318 Little Red Reviewer

        hmm, i hadn’t thought about the zombie trend, but I’m sure you’re right – we feel like we have no control over the dangers that the media says we’re surrounded by, and a zombie plague is a danger in our backyard that we have no control over. I think the trend for dystopian fiction is also a 9/11 response too. I like dark fantasy & dystopia, but sometimes it hits a little too close to home.

        LOL, next time I’m at the library picking up my holds, i’ll inter-library loan the Bester! I’ve hit up a few used bookstores in the last week or so, no one has a copy floating around.

        • http://publiusonline.com Daniel B.

          There’s always Amazon…

        • http://publiusonline.com Daniel Burton

          You’re right. I failed to note the connection in the increase in dystopia literature, especially in the young adult geared market, but I think you’re right on. One thing I like about much of the dystopia literature over zombie lit is that there tends to be a thread of hope to the dystopia lit, a breath beyond mere survival.

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