Review of The Stars My Destination (1956)


Alfred Bester (writer).

Read in 2017.

Review refers to the revised edition.

A coarse, incurious worker without ambition is physically and mentally transformed into a supervillain by circumstances beyond his control in a war between the inner and outer portions of the solar system.

Soft science fiction, with a “big” supernatural premiss (unassisted mass self-teleportation) and some smaller ones (e.g. telepathy). However, these premisses are not central. Beneath them the novel is a remake of The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), its escalation apparently influenced by the superhero genre. On top, Bester inserts both noir tropes and Rudy Rucker’s version of Allen Ginsberg’s “eyeball kicks”, bringing a density of ideas and a social complexity to the setting that prefigures cyberpunk. Like a lot of cyberpunk, the novel is a dystopia of sorts, but of the decentralized, barely controlled, near-PKD variety.

The result is vastly more entertaining than The Demolished Man (1953), but built on some of the same rather dreary preoccupations: Extremes of emotion, masculinity and power, set against cliffhanger detective work in an implausibly twisted world. The starting point of the narrative, with the Nomad being lost for so long in spite of its value, makes little sense, and the spectacular coincidences pile up fast. Here, the protagonist’s apotheosis ultimately hinges on a bunch of “cellar Christian” sophistry, masking the extreme power fantasy. Despite some impulses to deconstruct this fantasy, Bester is nowhere near Dostoevsky and doesn’t pull it off: The protagonist sure likes to “destroy” women, and confesses at one point to the crimes of rape and genocide as he submits to justice. I don’t mind that intradiegetic justice never comes, but it feels like Bester didn’t have as much time for critical thinking as Auguste Maquet and Alexandre Dumas.

References here: “The Changeling” (1967), We Who Are About To... (1976), Neuromancer (1984), Berserk (1989).

text fiction