Alfred Bester, “The Stars My Destination”

Published in 1956, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester is a very innovative and unforgettable science-fiction novel.  The Library of America edition I am reading points out in the insert that The Stars My Destination was seen as a “perfect cyberpunk novel.”  Certainly there are many themes in this novel that are familiar to readers of cyberpunk such as body modification, underclass heroes, the domination of megacorporations, and deep class divisions driving plot.  By combining the problem of class division with the problem of technology cyberpunk is one of the more politically relevant genres of recent literature.  The Stars My Destination is a beautiful and powerful introduction to this genre.  Through its major plot device, the human capacity to teleport (called Jaunting), Bester explores questions of power and equality that allow us to ask questions about our own time about the ways those in power adapt to change and the way we can exploit technological innovations to expand our freedom.

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Jaunting is the ability to teleport oneself, unaided, by a simple expression of will.  The only requirements are that you know where you are and can visualize where you are  going.  Different people have varying capacities for teleporation, but some few – due to brain damage, for instance, are incapable of doing it.  No one is capable of interstellar jaunting.  Jaunting creation revolutionary conditions as the boundaries between classes were fractured.  “The transition was more spectacular than the change over from horse and buggy to gasoline four centuries before.  On three planets and eight satellites, social, legal, and economic structures crashed while the new customs and laws demanded by universal jaunting mushroomed in their place. There were land riots as the jaunting poor deserted slums to squat in plains and forests, raiding the livestock and wildlife.  There was a revolution in home and office buildings: labyrinths and masking devices had to be introduced to prevent unlawful entry by jaunting.  There were crashes and panics and strikes and famines as pre-jaunte industries failed.  Plagues and pandemics raged as jaunting vagrants carried diseases and vermin into defenseless countries. . . Crime waves swept the planet and satellites as their underworld took to jaunting with the night around the clock, and there were brutalities as the police fought them without quarter.  There came a hideous return to the worst prudery of Victorianism as society fought the sexual and moral dangers of jaunting with protocol and taboo.” (158)  One other things jaunting did was establish a relative equality between Earth, Venus, Mercury, the Moon and the “Outer Satellites” (the moons of Saturn and Jupiter).  A form of economic colonialism that existed between the core and the outer worlds fell away and was replaced with continual conflict rather than trade.  A final influence of jaunting was a cultural crises as “Classicists and Romantics” battled it out.  The Romantics looked for the new frontiers and embracing teleportation as the means to create them.  This is all established in the first pages of the novel and is almost enough for a conversation about the eternal dance between liberatory technology and those in power.  It is hard to argue that jaunting is not liberatory.  It broke down walls; it opened space – the control of which enforced regimens of power and exclusion.  How could a prisoner be confined if he could will himself free?  Yet, it did not take long for reaction to set in.  Jaunting became conventional – a ranked job skill like any other.  Megacorporations did not seem to lose their power.  In fact, they seemed to gain power.  The elite distinguished themselves by purchasing jaunt-proof homes, hidden behind mazes, and by refusing to jaunt themselves.  Their continued use of personal drivers advertized their wealth.  A woman character complains that jaunting all but restored the veil as men discovered creative ways to hide and seclude their women.  Prisons moved to undisclosed, hidden, underground locations to prevent escapes.  In short, despite a period of conflict and liberation brought forth by the new technology the old power dynamics are not transformed or turned upside down, just reformed.

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In comes Gulliver Foyle and the story of The Stars My Destination.  Foyle is on a mission of revenge.  While drifting in space on a ship Nomad, Foyle was passed by another ship, the Vorga.  For most of the novel, it is revenge that is driving his actions.  He escaped the Nomad by falling in with some strange cult called “The Scientific People,” who tattoo his face and provide him a genetically compatible wife.  He escapes but is forever scarred with these tattoos.  Even when he removes them, they are revealed when he shows his anger.  Other people are interested in Foyle because the Nomad contained a significant quantity of PyrE, which can be used as a super weapon.  It is also one of the only means to win a war with the outer colonies.  Its supply is strictly controlled.  The ship also contains a large amount of bullion.  After being captured by men in the employ of the rich and well-connected Presteign, Foyle escapes a jail and seizes the Nomad and its contents.  He returns to earth, with cybernetic upgrades to achieve his mission of revenge.  I do not want to dwell on the plot, but rather speak to to three ways that Foyle disturbs the balance civilization created in the aftermath of jaunting.  First, by preventing PyrE from getting into the hands of the government of the Inner Planets, Foyle ensured a destructive war that the Outer Satellites would almost certainly win.  Second, he distributed the PyrE to the people around the world.  He is deemed insane for giving such power to the people, but he replies: “I’ve handed life and death back to the people who do the living and dying.  The common man’s been whipped and led long enough by driven men like us. . . Compulsive men . . . Tiger men who can’t help lashing the world before them.  We’re tigers, the three of us, but who the hell are we to make decisions for the world just because we’re compulsive.  Let he world make its own choice between life and death.  Why should we be saddled with the responsibility?” (367)  Finally, Foyle is the first person capable of “space-vault.”  As it turns out, his presence on the Nomad was not intended.  He jaunted from space to the ship after being left to die as a decoy.  As with the discovery of jaunting, an era ends.

Foyle does indeed retire, leaving humanity to its own fate and joins the “Scientific People” who accept him as a sort of monk.  In a sense, he ends by abdicating responsibility for the chaos he unleashes.  All in all, a great novel and reminds me of the need, from time to time, to embrace those systemic shocks that may not promise permanent freedom but do create spaces for autonomy.

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One response to “Alfred Bester, “The Stars My Destination”

  1. I read this novel about five and half years ago,and I know I found it tremendous at the time,even though my memory of it now seems vague.It was an influence on later new wave writers such as Michael Moorcock and Samuel Delany,who didn’t always like the old genre writers.

    The part of the novel that dealt with synaesthesia though,is very similar to that I think,of the later LSD experience from what I know of it,nearly ten years before the 1960s drug age.I assume this was remarkably prescient,and that Bester,like Dick at the time, hadn’t taken LSD.

    It seems that technology will always create power and wealth.Who has ever been interested in inventions if they didn’t make money? It has led to mass production of modern weaponry for the worst evils of capitalism and dictatorships.Computer technology,which is directly relevant to the decadence of cyberpunk,especially in novels such as William Gibson’s “Neuronmancer”,is the new monopolism of the modern age.Google at the forefront of this,is a virtual empire,but who really benefits?

    Bester was exponiential along with Bradbury in the 1950s though,in changing genre sf from inside.

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