Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
And Death's my destination
Alfred Bester produced many excellent short stories in his career, but he is best known for two novels; one is The Demolished Man, a tale of police procedure and investigation in a world of telepaths.
The other is The Stars My Destination, AKA Tiger! Tiger! in some places.
The Stars My Destination is often called The Count of Monte-Cristo… IN SPAAACE!, and certainly it was inspired by that novel and shares some key elements with it, such as a sailor finding himself betrayed by those he thought he could trust, returning from what seemed an impossible exile to wreak his vengeance upon those responsible, a tale of forgotten riches that can give him the chance to carry out his plan, and so on – but it is very much its own story, and very, very different even in these general details.
The central "big idea" of The Stars My Destination is, like that of The Demolished Man, a new human capability; in this case, the ability to "jaunte", or teleport, to any location that the person can visualize clearly enough in space. This works on planetary surfaces only – the best jaunte experts can teleport from one side of the planet to the other, but none have ever teleported from a planet to another planet, or even from one spaceship to another.
This power has of course transformed the way in which the social structure and political structure of the world works. In many ways, The Stars My Destination is very much a proto-cyberpunk novel; it has many of the same characteristics, including a future of great technological capability, even reaching out into the solar system, yet darker, more cynical, with huge corporations controlling things at least as much as the governments, fragmenting of the social structure, more extreme behaviors and body-modification becoming common, and even cybernetics capable of giving people enhanced capabilities.
Against this backdrop we are introduced to our protagonist – I use the word very advisedly rather than the more common word "hero". Gulliver "Gully" Foyle is very different from Edmond Dantes, the hero of The Count of Monte-Cristo. Edmond was an up-and-coming rising star, a young man of energy, purpose, and charisma who had everything and was poised for greatness. By contrast, Gully Foyle is a man who may have immense potential but who has no drive, no interest in moving himself forward; he has found a comfortable niche in his shipboard tasks and, it seems, will live his life out never moving from this set and dull course.
But then his ship, the Nomad, is attacked and he finds himself marooned in space, alone, on a crippled ship, keeping himself alive by scavenging air, food, and other essentials from the other parts of the wreck. Finally, against all odds, he sees another ship approaching, and sets off the distress flares. The ship, Vorga T:1339, approaches, hesitates… and then sheers off and deserts him, against all the law and tradition of space and the sea, leaving a man in distress to die.
THIS accomplishes what even his desperate scramble to stay alive could not; it sets a raging fire in his heart, a fire for revenge. "I kill you, Vorga T:1339. I kill you filthy."
In the next few weeks he figures out a method to get the Nomad moving again, activates the engines, sending him driving back into the solar system. His maneuver isn't very controlled – he is not, after all, trained – but it does take him eventually into the range of a strange group of space barbarians, who call themselves "The Scientific People"; for a short time they hold him, and prepare him to be one of them – including tattooing his face with a hideous and bizarre pattern. But he escapes there, too, blasting his way out in another of the wrecks that the Scientific People have scavenged, and this time manages to make his way back to Earth.
His quest for revenge has begun, and before it is done the name of "Gully Foyle" will be spoken in fear on half a dozen worlds.
Gully Foyle, especially in the early parts of the book, is not a nice man – to put it mildly. He was by far the darkest protagonist I had ever encountered at the time I first read the book, and in fact I missed out on some of the nastier aspects of his character on early readings.
But the interesting thing about Foyle is that as he progresses through the story, learning more and more about the world he lives in and how he must gain more and more capabilities just to continue to pursue his vengeance (originally, he was literally so single-minded that he sought vengeance on the ship Vorga itself rather than realizing the crew was responsible) he grows, becoming less of a monster, more moral and thoughtful and, finally, repentant.
At the same time, we get more and more of a look at the world he lives in, and the people responsible for who he was and what happened to him, and in some ways it becomes clear that, honestly, the world deserved Gully Foyle. The arrogance, the scheming, the betrayals, the manipulations that surround Foyle – and the secrets he doesn't even know he has – cast a sharp, and unflattering, light on almost everyone that Foyle encounters.
By the end of the novel, positions are almost entirely reversed. Gully Foyle, the dull and brutish monster, has become Gulliver Foyle, a man who has seen the futility of revenge, who has come to despise who he was and what he has done, and who has further seen what the men of power in his world do in their backroom dealings and decided that he will have none of it; he will give the power back to the people, for them to control… or destroy.
"All right, God damn you! I challenge you, me. Die or live and be great. Blow yourselves to Christ gone or come and find me, Gully Foyle, and I make you men. I make you great. I give you the stars."
This is one of my favorite novels of all time. The Stars My Destination is one of the science-fiction novels I have always felt could be handed to someone who doubted that science fiction could provide "real literature" and change their minds. The progression of Gully Foyle is, itself, a message of tremendous hope, despite the darkness of his world; if a man so dull, so debased, so dark as Gully Foyle can find his way out of that trap, can become someone of ideals and nobility, then is there perhaps not hope for everyone?
More than hope, though, is the power of the writing. I am seized anew by the book every time I open it, especially when I pass the prologue and reach the first line of the real beginning of the book:
He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.
There are parts of my books where I keep the power of Bester's prose in my head, desperately trying to wring from my own words even a tenth of the power that he could infuse into his. If I manage that… then I've succeeded in writing better than most people every will.
If you've never read The Stars My Destination… you should. If you have… maybe it's time to read it again.