Monday, August 19, 2013

The Stars My Destination

One of the spoils of my book-sale conquest a couple weeks ago was The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester. I'd read The Stars My Destination (1956) some time ago and liked it a lot, so this new one was the first I read of the bunch. It caused me to revisit TSMD. After A. E. van Vogt, I'd now say Bester is my favorite of the Golden Age writers.

It's quite surprising how contemporary these two books feel. They've been hailed as precursors of cyberpunk; in fact, they're merely early entries in the subgenre. Neuromancer (1984) certainly goes beyond them, but I don't see anything significantly new about it apart from the idea of cyberspace. TSMD has a high-tech underworld, super-powerful corporations, criminals with cybernetic enhancements, and all the rest. I don't say this to diminish Neuromancer in any way, as originality is, I think, overrated.

Both novels (TSMD and TDM) abound in delightful invention and colorful detail passed over quickly. I think, for instance, of the neo-savage Scientific People in their cobbled-together space habitat; the underground Shanghai "hospital" for people addicted to illegal diseases; the Gilt Corpse, a notorious socialite with a surgically enhanced, "pneumatic" body; a commercial jingle so persistent it allows a murderer to keep his mind from being read by the police while he has it going around his head; the Coop, a former ceramics factory bombed into a rainbow-colored labyrinth during the last war and serving to house a brothel and psychic act. The novels jump from one thing to the next and are truly a pleasure to read just for that. It isn't a surprise that Bester seemingly wrote himself out so quickly, for any one of the ideas he touches on so lightly might have served as the conceit for an entire novel in the hands of a lesser author.

The esper world of TDM is, to me, a terrifying one, a world in which crime has been eliminated because the police can read minds. Bester doesn't really comment on whether this is good or bad, which I appreciate. My own opinion is that enhanced safety is generally accompanied by diminishing freedom, and that it is possible to trade away so much freedom that the safety is not worth having. Does that have a contemporary application? Hm, no comment. Except to say that I recently read an article discussing advances made in brain-mapping and the possibility that answers to questions posed by (say) law enforcement officers might one day be scanned directly out of the perp's head. Does the right not to testify against oneself include keeping one's own mind from being read? I hope I'm dead before the SCOTUS attempts to answer that question.

TDM is, they say, explicable only in light of Freudian psychology. I didn't find this to be so myself. Certainly Freudian psychology lends the plot cohesion, but I don't find that I have to suspend my disbelief in it in order to enjoy the book. Attention is generally drawn to the Oedipal urges of the protagonist, but the "Electra complex" that develops in the young Barbara (who is mentally regressed to infancy and raised by a police prefect—whom she refers to as "Daddy"—and his love interest, ultimately coming to maturity and stealing the heart of the former from the latter) is, shall we say, slightly more unsettling. It reminds me of the strange, immature kinkiness one finds in many of van Vogt's novels.

Weird and immature or not, there's nothing of the sort in TSMD. Its original title (in the UK) was Tiger! Tiger!, and the epigram to the first part is a verse from Blake's poem:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

This serves as a description of the protagonist, Gulliver Foyle, whose impetuous, comet-like course in pursuit of revenge defines the novel. He's an Everyman, a type of the human race, rising from apathy and savagery to enlightenment only to discover what a chimera he is, and how unworthy and pointless his mission. But also to find the stars within his reach.

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

The basic conceit of the book is a world transformed by the advent of jaunting—personal teleportation—which allows a person to instantaneously move to a distant location simply by willing it. The difficulty is that the jaunter has to have seen the location previously. This permits the rich and the powerful to keep their hold on society; as the novel says, the limitations on jaunting give the Grand Tour a whole new significance. Also, jaunting through space is seemingly impossible.

The secret of the space-jaunte is revealed in the end and is, appropriately, rather metaphysical. In order to jaunte, one needn't have seen the place of desire; it's necessary only to have faith that the place exists. This is, I think, a beautiful exploration of a purely natural faith or (to be more accurate, in my opinion) hope. The ancients averred that hope could degenerate into one of two opposite vices: the infantility of presumption and the senility of despair. TSMD is a tale of the middle course being laid open to man, and no more.

It closes on an ambiguous but optimistic note, with Foyle distributing PyrE, an agent of mass destruction, to the great unwashed to do with as they will, then going on a jaunte through the furnace-places of the cosmos. The last paragraphs find him curled up like a fetus in the hold of an outer-space cargo cult, dreaming divine dreams, a sleeping giant whose awakening will bring enlightenment to humanity.

After his brief science fiction career in the fifties and sixties Bester went on to edit a travel magazine. He eventually returned to what made him famous, with mixed results. I haven't read his later novels, but the reviews paint them as violent, joyless, and misanthropic. He gained the reputation of being a mean drunk in his last years, died right before receiving his SFWA Grand Master award, and left his estate to his bartender.

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