The Stars My Destination is considered one of the most important works of sf, and Bester is nearly always mentioned in talks about the masters of the genre. This was the first book I’ve read by him, and his most well-known (although his other well-known book, The Demolished Man, won the first Hugo Award.) I believe I first added this book to my TBR after watching Babylon 5 for the first time, where one of the characters (a telepath, fittingly) is named after the author.
A rough retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo in a future where humans can teleport with their minds (“jaunting”), and telepaths are rare but exist, the book follows Gulliver “Gully” Foyle: an uninspired, uneducated man who is “shipwrecked” in space, stranded for six months. He is inspired to finally make something of himself when a ship called Vorga declines to rescue him, despite clearly seeing his rescue flares, igniting a rage in him he can’t control. He rescues himself, and sets about executing his revenge.
What follows is a series of events where Gully essentially levels up. There are sequences that are very reminiscent of the source material (he’s imprisoned, and a cellmate he can’t see helps to educate him), but overall, Gully is a very different character than Edmond Dantès, and the books I think are exploring different aspects of humanity. Where Dantès is sympathetic and likable from the beginning even at his darkest moment, Foyle is seen as a monster by nearly everyone he meets, even himself. He is violent, vulgar, an uncritical thinker, and a rapist. His monstrosity is made literal in the form of a tiger tattoo that covers his face like a mask, given to him against his will early in the book. Even when it is removed, when he is angered or upset, the tattoo’s remnants rise to the surface of his skin. (The book’s original title was Tiger! Tiger! after the William Blake poem.) He is rage personified, an uncaged animal with a vendetta.
The book is very well written, and not as dated as I thought it would be. I would say it was very readable, but I listened to the audiobook, with Gerard Doyle as narrator. So it was very listenable. (I did get annoyed sometimes at how many times I had to listen to him say the characters’ names over and over, because the characters say each other’s names way too much. And it doesn’t help that one of the characters is called “Jizbella” and goes by “Jiz”. talk about dated.) I just never really connected with it on a personal level, despite how readable/listenable it was.
I also thought the way the book treated Gully’s female counterparts was bizarre, and I’m not sure what to make of them. There are three notable women in this novel: the formerly mentioned Jizbella (who falls in love with Gully while they are imprisoned, but turns on him afterwards); a one-way psychic whom Gully rapes (off-page, thank God) and then extorts to help him; and the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the universe who can only see the electromagnetic spectrum and is otherwise blind, with whom Gully inexplicably “falls in love” (this takes about five minutes). These three instances of “love” in Gully’s life almost seem deliberately false, so maybe they are just one more way to point out his emptiness. This is also a world in which women’s rights have regressed due to the social chaos caused by jaunting, so that wasn’t very fun to read about, even if all three women buck against the systems that repress them in various ways.
The book does end on a hopeful note, in case that was something you were wondering, and like Edmond Dantès, does in the end realize somewhat the futility of his revenge. Actually, Gully makes a much more drastic change than Dantès, who softens up on his revenge only after he’s committed most of it, so he gets to have his cake and eat it, too. Gully makes the choice to stop before his quest is truly complete, which seems the more truly moral choice to me.