Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: The Stars My Destination

Properly, I should be referring to this novel as Tiger! Tiger! since that is the title Alfred Bester chose for his second SF novel, and was the title under which it was published in Britain. But in America, the title was, unsurprisingly, thought to have too little connection with SF, and the book was issued as The Stars My Destination, taken from a repeating jingle in the story. And my copy of the book is an American paperback, which I bought decades ago in the long-gone London bookshop, ‘Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed’.
(Technically, I didn’t buy it myself, my then firm bought it for me, not that they were ever aware. From time to time, I would get sent to London to deliver certain things too important or urgent to be left to the post. On such occasions I would be issued with a ‘float’ from Cashiers and told to just hand in the change when I got back. As long as we didn’t blatantly abuse the situation, no questions were asked as to exactly what the money was spent on. The Stars My Destination was one such fruit.)
For a very long time, this book was called ‘The Greatest SF Novel of All Time’. Except perhaps among older readers, I suspect that’s no longer the case, though it’s almost certain that, without the likes of The Stars My Destination, William Gibson and those other writers who formed cyberpunk in the early Nineties would be writing something very different.
Looked at now, Stars is indelibly a product of the Fifties, just as is The Demolished Man. It’s informed by the attitudes of the time, which are now far enough distant to be as strange as any futuristic society. Structurally, the two books are similar: both are set in the twenty-fourth century, both create societies transformed by one single factor – telepathy in The Demolished Man, personal teleportation in Stars – both centre upon a driven man acting against society’s constraints and both take a classic form as the underpinning of their own unfolding story. In Stars‘s case, it’s Edmund Dante, and The Count of Monte Christo.
Bester sets things up in a Prologue of the kind excised from The Demolished Man, but retained forever in Stars, which serves to set up teleportation, or ‘jaunting’ as the key component of the world we’re about to enter. Then he introduces Gulliver Foyle, Gully Foyle, the protagonist of this story and one of the most famous characters of SF history.
Gully Foyle’s a nothing, a nobody. He comes from the lowest underclass, a big, shambling outline of a man with nothing within. Foyle lacks energy, intelligence, interest, capability. He barely exists, he barely thinks.
Yet Gully Foyle has survived six months in space, a shipwrecked sailor keeping himself alive on a destroyed spaceship, living in a four by four by six locker that every few days he has to fill with oxygen.
Gully should be dead, he should be mad, but he has too little going on in his head to go insane with.
Until ‘Vorga’, a ship that forms part of  the commercial fleet of Presteign, approaches the wreckage of ‘Nomad’. Foyle hails it, expecting rescue, but is abandoned: ‘Vorga’ passes on, leaving Gully Foyle to his fate. But the act transforms Foyle: the overwhelming hatred, the black compulsion to revenge, energises him, drives him into rescuing himself from his helpless situation, so that he can get back at ‘Vorga’, can “kill it filthy, kill it dead”.
The great strength of Stars is that, despite a supporting cast of powerful personalities devoted to catching up with Foyle, it is Gully who is the centre of the story. He is Ben Reich without the distraction of splitting his time with Lincoln Powell, and he is more than Ben Reich in that he is the more dementedly-crazy, the cruder, the more powerful, and his compulsion is something that we see driven into him from outside. He is not a rich man out to enrich himself further, to give rise to his self-indulgent urge to murder, he is the exact opposite. He is a poor man, the lowest of the low, transformed by the urge for revenge. Foyle begins as the crudest of the crude and gradually grows in everything except his response to the evil done him. Everyone around him is affected by the compulsion that even he cannot get over: Ghoul, liar, lecher, cancer, all words thrown at him with good reason.
In addition, Bester sets the story against the background of a war, a war within the Solar System, Inner Planets versus Outer Satellites: Foyle is originally a shipwrecked sailor from a destroyed Inner Planets ship.
The story moves like a whirlwind. Foyle runs, fights, is imprisoned, forces his way out, escapes into space. From very early on he is marked: a tiger’s mask is tattooed across his face, and when this is bleached out of him, he discovers that the tattoo is burned into his face: in moments of anger or high emotion, the blood of his tiger face flares under his skin.
The pace of the story is also accelerated by Bester’s choice of teleportation rather than telepathy to distinguish this society. Telepathy is cerebral, in itself static, requiring other elements to provide the story with its action, whereas jaunting is visceral. The conquest of distance, the instantaneous removal of body, means that the story can be nothing but fast.
And to surround Foyle, Bester constructs a complex of opposition, as everyone he encounters, everyone he touches, turns onto enemies in the face of his drive. There is Robin Wednesbury, the jaunting teacher who is a hapless telesender, able to project her mind but not receive thoughts, whom Foyle in his early, brutish state, rapes. Peter Yang-Yeovil of Central Intelligence. The radiation-saturated Saul Dagenham, courier chief. Presteign of Presteign, the commercial baron and his blind daughter, the beautiful but cruel Olivia, who sees in ultra-violet. Regis Sheffield, lawyer and Outer Satellites Fifth Columnist. Jisbella McQueen, fiery criminal and escapee, who owes her freedom to Foyle but is driven to oppose him by his monomania.
(And if you’ve noticed that nearly all the names are British places, bear in mind that the book was conceived and started in England, where Bester and his wife were touring with the option monies for the never-realised film of Who He?).
The Stars My Destination is ultimately about more than Gully Foyle’s obsessive quest for revenge. The forces swarming around him have more in mind than stopping the destructive drive of an increasingly dangerous man. Ostensibly, they are engaged in a battle to locate and take control of PyrE, twenty bars of a dangerous explosive that is detonated by thought. There is a war, that the Outer Satellites are moving towards winning: PyrE can tip the balance either way. The twenty bars were on the Nomad: only Foyle knows where they are, even though he doesn’t know they exist, let alone their properties.
This leads to a literally pyrotechnic ending, where the speed at which Bester moves increases exponentially. Foyle is caught in a PyrE explosion that jolts all his senses into a synaesthesic state. Bester lifts off the page with typographical twists and booms that mimic the effect of Foyle’s skewed senses. Foyle becomes the Burning Man, an image that has haunted him throughout the book and then vanishes, hurtling around the universe.
For the other secret, kept under deeper wraps until now, is that Foyle can space-jaunte. He can teleport across space, millions of miles further than any other jaunter to date. What makes him thus, and whether it can be learnt, makes him even more valuable than the PyrE.
But it’s not Foyle’s hitherto unguessed-at talent – which got him into his castaway position before even the book began – that forms the basis of Bester’s ending, of the rush of hope, optimism and belief on which he concludes. That’s PyrE.
Everyone wants it, be it for their power and aggrandisement, or to keep it hidden and used only as a weapon of ultimate resort, or for it to be destroyed as a tool too powerful even to exist. In this argument, PyrE is an obvious stand-in for the A-Bomb, or perhaps it was the H-Bomb by 1956, and these are the arguments with which the world itself had to grapple.
In this world, we, the people, were the hapless ones, excluded forever from the decision-making, though we were the ones who would be affected in our multi-millions by the use of such weapons, whether against us or ‘for’ us.  In our name, by tigers who stood above s, driven by their own urges. Better Dead than Red, Generals and Republicans would grate, but I don’t recall any of them ever asking me my opinion about that choice.
But Bester, and Foyle, have a different idea. PyrE is not to be kept hidden, an invisible Armageddon on high. Foyle jaunts and jaunts and jaunts, throwing out bars of PyrE wherever he goes, putting it in the hands – and the thoughts – of the commonality. Challenging them, demanding of them, they who have the most but use the least, to escape from their brutality, their ignorance, their laziness. It’s time for them to grow up, to demand an account, to no longer let things be done in their name but to take on that responsibility for themselves. Like Gully Foyle, monster though he be, has made something incredible of himself.
Foyle challenges the common man, the gutter man, to prove that the stars really are their destination.
Wisely, Bester leaves the future to our imaginings. Foyle, his tiger mask again ablaze, goes into a deep sleep. In the future we ‘see’ we reveal ourselves. But there is a hint, to say that all is, and will be well.
It’s almost impossible not to bracket The Stars My Destination with The Demolished Man. There are similarities of tone and structure between the two books, and for a very long time they were Alfred Bester’s career in SF: these and a host of brilliant, eye-popping short stories that exist in a continuum.
There’s even the typographical tricks that seek to lift off the flat surface of the page, most notably in the synaesthesic section, but also in the use of the male and female gender symbols (that I can’t reproduce) in place of ‘o’s and ‘a’s in names.
To me, The Stars My Destination is the better book. It is a classic, and its influence on SF, both contemporaneously and over and again since is palpable. Next, I’m going to look at some of that shorter fiction before examining Bester’s next chronologically written but long-unpublished novel.


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