Book Review: the Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The next book for my Readings in the Genre: Science Fiction Classics for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University was The Stars My Destination (Science Fiction 212 pages) by Alfred Bester.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Stars My Destination. The beginning of the book started out a little awkwardly for me because of the potential for the book to focus on the technical and scientific aspects of this story. This was another story that I went into blind, which means I didn’t read the back of the book, or any summary online, or anything that told me anything about the novel. I know from my own personal tastes that I tend to enjoy “soft” science fiction quite a bit more than “hard” science fiction, so when The Stars My Destination immediately began with scientific experiments and terminology, I became a little worried.

Why do I prefer “soft” science fiction stories over “hard” science fiction? I think for me, I’m more interested in the interpersonal relationships often explored throughout “soft” science fiction. The Stars My Destination had more elements of “soft” science fiction than it did for “hard” science fiction because while the technology was there and it existed, none of it was ever explained. I think that’s one of the huge draws of “hard” science fiction for those who enjoy it is the look at potentially new and creative ideas. Interstellar travel was just a given in The Stars My Destination and none of the devices used to actually transport people across the galaxy are ever mentioned. The book never talks about faster than light drives, hyperspace, warp drives, or any other of the aspects as to why the technology should function the way it did. The book also doesn’t really address how long interstellar transportation required or what kind of technological differences existed between the inner planets and the satellite planets. The interior of the ships are never described, just left plain and bare, unless used to described or mirror what was going on with Gully at any given time. When Gully worked to repair the Nomad, the repairs were never specified. Gully never spelled out exactly what he was doing; he just knew what he was working on would work and if it didn’t, he would find a way to make it work, but at no time did he ever talk about how the space ship works or how jaunting really works. Kathryn Cramer in Hard Science Fiction states: “Hard sf is receptive to a variety of sciences, but its literary tactics and attitude seem most suited to physics and astronomy, disciplines operating on a grand scale” (Cramer 192).

For me, “hard” science fiction deals most with science, technology, and the scientific ability to prove or disprove actual facts, while “soft” science fiction such as the sub-genre of space opera deal more “… with wars in space balanced by a nuanced understanding of politics and persuasive attentiveness to personal relationships” (Westfahl 206). The Stars My Destination demonstrated more characteristics of being “soft” science fiction in the sense that it was character and emotion-driven. Not just emotion driven, but the overwhelming emotional trends throughout this entire book are all the negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, revenge, and greed. The majority of the definitions or descriptions I’ve read of “hard” science fiction specifically exclude emotions as part of the scientific process. Or when there are emotions, the emotions are ones such as curiosity or passion for the scientific process and rarely human emotions such as love, joy, or revenge.

Politics and political science are also fields in which the less emotional content, the more successful a person or narrative will be in their interactions with others within the same field. In this way, politics and “hard” science fiction are natural partners because both can look at concepts with a much greater impact than a story that only impacts one governing system or one galaxy.

I’m not sure that David Hartwell’s list of characteristics of “hard” science fiction were actually helpful to me, even though it did provide a little bit more clarity into some of the reasons behind why “hard” science fiction is the way it is.

The first females introduced in the novel are designed for mating purposes, but on a fringe colony like where the “Scientific People practice Natural Selection”, I figured that any new blood at all would be immediately desired in order to increase the gene pool of what would otherwise be a stagnant population. People who were even remotely based on science at any point throughout their evolution would know the benefits of increasing the genetic diversity of an isolated population.

I guess the main reason that I didn’t see any issues with the way women were treated in this novel is because *everyone* was treated poorly. From my perspective, the sex on any or all of the characters could have been changed and it wouldn’t have affected Gully’s transformation at all. So the story struck me as something more genderless than anything because gender really didn’t matter. I think there were only a couple implied sex scenes throughout the entire novel but they were never a driving force within the novel itself. Jisbella transitions from a helpless *prisoner* to a an intelligent *person* to a conflicted *partner* to a vindictive *former friend*.

I think that the telling style for this story worked for me because by telling and not showing, we were given a world free of racial stereotypes. I’m fairly certain that the only person whose racial identity is even remotely discussed is Robin, and I am certain of that because I remember some of his comments as Gully searched for her along the lines of him calling her a tall and beautiful black woman. Or something along those lines. While one can (and probably does because of when this story was written) assume that all the rest of the characters who are not specifically designated as other ethnicities are white, you could also just as easily assume that they aren’t. I can’t really say with certainty that this book is fairly close to being neutral in both sexual and gender representation, but that is the impression and feeling I got from my reading of the book.

I was a little less enthusiastic about cheering for Gully to get his revenge. Up until about the 75% mark in the book, I was thinking that Gully would find out that the Vorga was carrying refugees and they couldn’t pick him up because to do so would have endangered or cost the lives of those refugees. I was expecting him to realize that and then feel remorse for killing the members of the crew, but I was not prepared for the section where we learn that the Vorga really was swindling the refugees; taking all their money, stripping and humiliating them from all their worldly possessions, then dumping them naked out the airlock. One of the key things I’ve learned throughout my travels is that the absolute worst and most frightening monster anyone could ever imagine is the human one, and this story definitely proves that.

Towards the end of The Stars My Destination, Gully is more and more often referred to as a monster and there are some massively monstrous things done in the last quarter of the book when the truth about what the Vorga did was unearthed. While Gully did learn that revenge really wouldn’t solve anything for him and that justice was likely unfair, he then took things one step further and put the fate for the common populace back with the common man.

Gully learned to be a better human and really, there isn’t anything anyone can say or do at the end of the day that isn’t more remarkable than acknowledging your own faults, accepting them, and working to be better than the person you were before. While revenge was the key motivational factor, once Gully is more educated about the world around him, he learned that there is a difference between revenge and justice. So once the section with the truth about what happened to the refugees came to light, then I absolutely understood Gully’s obsession and genuinely wanted to see him complete his journey. And it was the fact that the crew of the Vorga were morally ambiguous that really sold me on Gully’s development to truly be a better human.

I thought it was really interesting that the final view of humanity is offered by a robot bar-tender who then short-circuits after offering the keys to humanity’s unpredictability. I think that also kind of says that there really isn’t a right way of doing things and that humanity will always be in flux. Kind of also along the lines of how the bottom can rise up and displace those at the top. I think, though, that history has clearly demonstrated that once those at the bottom rise up and are now at the top that they will then create conditions wherein there will be a new bottom that will rise up. It’s a never-ending cycle.

I don’t think that any explosions would have been triggered by Gully giving the PyrE to the common people with no pattern or purpose at first, but once those in charge had to explain to the populace as a whole what PryE is that then there would be problems. Human curiosity tends to get us into some very interesting situations 🙂

Overall, this book was probably a three on my rating scale. It had a lot of good things going for it and I’m pretty sure I’ll read it again at some point in the future.

Works Cited:

Bester, Alfred. The Stars, My Destination. New York: Bricktower Press, 1996. Print.

Cramer, Kathryn. “Hard Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge IP, 2013. 186-196. Print.

Westfahl, Gary. “Space Opera.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge IP, 2013. 197-208. Print.

 

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About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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