A tale with more rip-roaring revenge than anything from Quentin Tarantino.
The Stars My Destination, written by Alfred Bester, was first published in the UK under the title ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ after the poem by William Blake. As that poem was Blake asking whether there was a divine hand at play in the creation of the perfect hunter, you can guess one of the main themes of this novel.
We start with the primal, unskilled, unthinking bear of a man, Gully Foyle, stranded in deep space. He is the last of the crew alive, and his chances of survival are looking slimmer than a supermodel after a bad case of diarrhoea when another spaceship, The Vorga, turns up. Sadly for Gully, the Vorga decides not to rescue him, instead leaving him to rot in his metal tomb. The anger this sparks in Gully leads him to engineer his escape with the sole purpose of revenge and brutal revenge at that.
That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, other than Gully’s escape and revenge triggers one of the crazier rides in modern literature, with each chapter giving a new crazed snapshot into this strange proto-cyberpunk universe of Bester’s creation.
The Complex Protagonist Thirsting for Revenge
I have read many others describe Gully Foyle as an anti-hero. I don’t even believe he qualifies as this, being instead simply a villain protagonist. Any sympathy we feel for the character is burnt away through an unforgivable act followed by unforgivable act. Many times the reader is tempted into trying to find humanity in this monster, only for Gully to plumb new depths of depravity in his hunt for revenge.
Humanity, Hate and Progress
Throughout this, the reader is asked to ponder the nature of Gully Foyle as the perfect hunter and what this says about humanity as a whole. At the core of this novel is a serious meditation on what causes humanity to make the next leap forward both in terms of technological advancement and philosophical understanding. That Bester uses a character as violent and irredeemable as Gully Foyle gives you some idea about how this question is answered.
The Legacy of The Stars My Destination
The universe of The Stars My Destination takes place in has clearly left its mark on literature. Few other novels sear such a diverse range of places and characters into your brain, and other greats such as Snow Crash and Neuromancer clearly owe it a debt. Just recalling all the places and characters the reader comes across during The Stars My Destination is dizzying. There are radioactive men, telepaths, space cargo cults, and people who put themselves into a state of living death.
My Favourite Quotes from The Stars My Destination
“Gully Foyle is my name and Terra is my nation. Deep space is my dwelling place and death’s my destination,”
Gully’s mantra in the beginning. A man lost and without hope, raging against death.
“You pigs, you. You rut like pigs, is all. You got the most in you, and you use the least. You hear me, you? Got a million in you and spend pennies. Got a genius in you and think crazies. Got a heart in you and feel empties.’
Few descriptions of humanity are as bleak as this. Bester, through Foyle, is exhausting us to be better than we are as he castigates for wasting what we have.
That’s me,” he said, motioning to the robot. “That’s all of us. We prattle about free will, but we’re nothing but response…mechanical reaction in prescribed grooves.”
“Take a war to make you spend. Take a jam to make you think. Take a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around lazy, you. Pigs, you! All right, God damn you! I challenge you, me. Die or live and be great.”
Following on from the previous quote, Foyle issues his challenge to humanity. If we can’t reach for the stars, if base survival is our only aim, perhaps we deserve extinction.
“You pass me by. You leave me rot like a dog. You leave me die, Vorga … Vorga-T:1339. 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,”
This quote shows the sheer rage at the heart of Gully Foyle. A rage he tries to mask with a veneer of respectability, but lies at the heart of all he does.
“Yes, no matter how we defend ourselves against the outside we’re always licked by something from the inside. There’s no defence against betrayal, and we all betray ourselves.”
Humanities’ self-defeating nature is laid bare by this quote. It’s not our enemies that will bring us down, but our own faults unchecked.
“Make it a human war,’ she said fiercely. ‘You’re the first not to be deceived by my looks. Oh God! The boredom of the chivalrous knights and their milk-maid passion for the fairy tale princess. But I’m not like that … inside. I’m not. I’m not. Never. Make it a savage war between us. Don’t win me … destroy me!”
Olivia Presteign is one of the great female characters in science fiction. This quote uncovers her desire to rebel violently against her position in the world. Better to be the villain in a burning world than a doll in a perfect one.
“We always do what’s natural, only sometimes we shouldn’t do it.”
The battle between our baser urges and what we know we should do.
“Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place,
The stars my destination.”
I thought we’d finish on a more hopeful note, with Gully, and humanity with him, heading for the stars.
The Stars My Destination is regularly cited as being one of the greatest works in science fiction, and it fully deserves this recognition. If you are on a website like this, then my guess is you are partial to a little bit of sci-fi, and if so, you should definitely read this book.
If you are still looking for a cyberpunk classic, take a look at our list of must-read cyberpunk novels.