Book Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other. The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been. This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first. In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.
Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen. Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive. Which he does. What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.
I got this in a collection of 1950s American scifi classics from Netgalley (which I will review as a whole at a future date). I was surprised to discover that I already had this particular book on my wishlist tagged simply as a scifi classic. So I went in with an enthusiasm that was definitely well-met. This book is worth reading for the world-building alone, even if the main plot and point of the novel doesn’t particularly speak to you.
The world Bester built for this book is complex and unique. Many authors would have left the future building at the jaunting alone. These people can teleport (and some are telepaths), what more is needed? But Bester takes it out a step further. Giving jaunting a limitation allows him to further expand upon how the change impacts people and culture differently based upon their wealth. On the one hand, since jaunting is only possible if you’ve physically been to the place you want to go, it becomes a bastion of the elite who can afford to travel there first.
They would memorize jaunte stages in widening circles, limited as much by income as ability; for one thing was certain: you had to actually see a place to memorize it, which meant you first had to pay for the transportation to get you there. Even 3D photographs would not do the trick. The Grand Tour had taken on a new significance for the rich. (loc 2465)
On the other hand, the wealthy will show off that they don’t need to jaunte because they can afford outmoded means of transportation like cars and trains.
As men climbed the social ladder, they displayed their position by their refusal to jaunte. (loc 2595)
Jaunting impacts the world further with the wealthy building labyrinths so that people can’t easily jaunt within their estate and home (since you can’t jaunt someplace you can’t see). In contrast, the working poor jaunte everywhere they possibly can to save their precious time and energy. On top of all of this, there’s space travel and space colonization, complete with slavery to mine the outer planets. But even the working poor who aren’t officially slaves are still essentially slaves to the wealthy elite. It’s a nightmare of a future where a few big corporations, and thus a few families, own the majority of the wealth, power, and luxury, and are unafraid to stomp on the poor to get ever more.
It makes sense that a good plot for this world would be a poor working man out to get vengeance on the corporation that left him to die in space. But Foyle isn’t a good guy himself. At first, none of his quest for vengeance is noble or is about anything other than himself. Plus, Foyle is an animal of a man. The book clearly believes that this animal state is the fault of the corrupt imbalance of power in the world. The wealthy elite have made many of the working poor into nothing more than scrabbling animals who will take what they can get violently when they can and live based on the more baser urges. As Foyle gradually climbs the social ladder in his espionage, he slowly learns what it is to be human and develops a conscience. I’m not a fan of this idea that the poor are forced into an animal-like state by the elite. Living without luxury doesn’t make a person animal-like. A lack of moral education contributes more than anything, and that can occur at any level of wealth. Thus, although I appreciate the fact that this vengeance plot allows for us to see the entire world from the bottom up, I’m not a fan of how Foyle’s growth and change is presented.
Some readers may be bothered by the fact that Foyle early in the book rapes someone and then later earns redemption, including from the woman he raped. The rape is described as part of his animal state, and he has now risen above it. When the rape occurs in the book, it is off-screen and so subtle that I honestly missed it until later in the book when someone calls Foyle a rapist. I appreciate that Bester does not depict the actual rape, as that would have prevented my enjoyment of the book. I don’t like the idea of rape being something only done by someone in an “animal state” or the idea that it’s something a person can ever redeem themselves from. I don’t think that’s the case at all. However, this is a very minor plot point in an extremely long book. Most of my issues with it are tied into my issues with the plot overall. I was able to just roll my eyes and tell the characters that they are wrong. It’s not that hard to do when most of them are presented as evil or anti-heroes to begin with. But this plot point might bother some readers more than others.
Overall, the world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals. Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here. Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting. Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.
4 out of 5 stars