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Consideration of Works Past: The Stars My Destination

This book got me kicked out of a reading club.

(Picture from here.)

Decades ago, I was interested in this woman. She was the kind of person that beautifies their environment. I admired that.

Anyway, she was in this book club and I was interested in her so I joined as well. We went through several books—some good, some not. One I liked was A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris. They suggested I pick an SF book. Most of the books we’d been doing were a little tame and I thought to shake things up a bit. So, I suggested The Stars My Destination. It’s a rough book but I figured they were up for it.

I was wrong. And was thoroughly excoriated. The girl I was interested in terminated whatever minuscule interested she had in me and I left the club. The moral of the story: TSMD isn’t for the squeamish.

TSMD is about redemption and forgiveness. Books about such things usually talk about tame things: I was a neglectful father. I did something stupid and feel wretched about it. The problem is that most people don’t really do much that really needs redemption and forgiveness. Our scale of what to feel guilty about is skewed. When somebody comes around who has really done something nasty, we like to think of them as unforgiveable. We want them to think of themselves as unforgiveable. Or, better yet, don’t think bad of themselves at all so we can feel good when bad things happen to them.

Forgiveness and redemption are, in my opinion, a peculiarly Christian notion. If you read the Greek plays, there is payback and revenge but it’s all tied up in fate. The Greeks would have had no trouble understanding Karma. But Christ comes along and says you can be forgiven for your sins. This brings to the front the concept of redemption and creates a new class of stories. Of course, once you’ve introduced the idea of short-circuiting guilt, payback, and karma, you’ve created a means by which people can evade guilt, payback, and karma. People are fine with that in their own little club but not so much for outsiders. Hence, some things become “unforgiveable”. That is, unless you join the club.

I don’t read the gospels that way. From what I can see, all is forgivable if the heart is sincere. That’s the way people emulate Christ. Of course, if one can emulate Christ effectively, one can be Christ. Every man can be his own Messiah. Which makes things all Gnostic—can’t have that. And so, we’re back to what is forgivable and what isn’t forgivable.

That long little digression brings us to the interesting piece of TSMD: the character of Gully Foyle, the protagonist. Foyle is an intelligent but uneducated. Able but incredibly lazy. He is sparked to greatness for the sake of revenge. Foyle was abandoned in space and subsequently bends his efforts to finding who did this, why, and exact payback on them. However, when he finds those responsible, he finds he has transformed himself into a thinking animal and discovers he actually now has a sense of right and wrong. He also becomes a messianic figure in that he has determined how humans can teleport to the stars.

Hence the problem the book club had with this book. In pursuit of revenge, Foyle becomes a murderer, rapist, thief and traitor. He leaves behind him a trail of broken people. At the end of the book there is the implication is he will be—or, at least, can be—forgiven. (The book never actually reaches the point of redemption. It reaches a point where redemption is possible and stops. Something I like.) The book club didn’t think he’d done enough, been punished enough, or refused the possibility that he would be able to do enough, to be forgiven. I didn’t agree and we parted ways.

What I learned from the book was that a dark protagonist could be interesting if that protagonist is honest about it. Modern SF has few characters like Foyle. Even the vampires, parasites that they are, have been prettified or made tragic. Foyle’s character has muscle. He is not pleasant. He makes no apology for what he does and only comes to see himself as loathsome after he has changed himself. Even then, he doesn’t whine about it.

Alfred Bester wrote a slew of wonderful short stories and a handful books. Two of them, The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man shook the foundation of science fiction. It was a new way to write SF stories. DM is more psychological and, in my opinion, not as good as TSMD. DM was written in 1953 and TSMD in 1955. While he continued to write short stories, he didn’t do any novels until 1975 when his health began to fail. Unfortunately, they were not so impressive as his first two novels.

The Stars My Destination was never made into a film. Just for fun, I’ve played with writing a screenplay of it several times but never did any actual work.

Hey! Anybody out there in Hollywoodland! This one would be great.



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