All I could recall of The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester was the name Gully Foyle. I read the book so many years ago it had faded into memory … the kind of memory that is recalled only after a serious mining operation.
Reading it now, I’m most struck by the degree to which it reads like the sci-fi that came much later (the 1980s and 1990s as far as books go, and just about every sci-fi movie made in the last twenty years).
Bester’s book was published first in 1956.
The Stars My Destination has been referred to as a forerunner of cyberpunk. It’s film noir, except it’s a book. The hero, Gully Foyle, is certainly not heroic. He’s criminal, though initially he was just a no one with zero ambition. He was just someone doing an unremarkable job in an adequate fashion and living out his days.
Then he kind of gets screwed over.
He’s the only survivor of a merchant ship that gets caught in the war between the inner planets and outer satellites. He survives for six months, just barely, when one day a sister merchant ship comes by. He expects to be rescued but the ship inexplicably ignores him and passes by.
And a new Gully Foyle is born. Like an old western or film noir, the book becomes a revenge story and all hell breaks loose as Gully is nothing if not focused. He’s also hateful and callous and tremendously resourceful, particularly compared with the dullard he was before. Gully Foyle becomes Captain Ahab and the ship that ignored him is his whale.
In his quest for revenge, he’ll do anything and does. He’s sociopathic in his indifference to others when they are between him and his revenge. He kills without remorse; he betrays without a second thought.
Initially, his hate is focused on the ship that passed him by, the Vorga. But he meets a woman named Jisbella (later, a victim of Gully’s willingness to betray). She points out to him that it is a ship and that someone must have been the captain. Someone must have made the choice to pass him by. Gully should be looking for that person.
And that becomes one of the mysteries that moves the story along. Who gave the order?
The plot unfolds quickly – at almost breakneck speed. It’s is fast, sexy and very violent. It is deliciously pulpy. As mentioned above, it’s like a film noir with its anti-hero and femme fatale. (Think along the lines of 1946’s Gilda.) But it is in a dystopian science fiction setting (think Blade Runner).
Although it is pulp fiction and over fifty years old, this book still reads well today. In fact, I was astonished to find no one had made a movie of it yet. I saw a reference on Wikipedia that some had said it was “unfilmable” but I find that hard to believe. This book reads to me like exactly the kind of s-f that Hollywood would go for … and it turns out they do. I also discovered the rights were purchased by Universal in 2006 and it is “in production.” The limited information available (IMDb Pro) suggests that the phrase really just means they have the rights are thinking about it. (I was a bit alarmed to find that the producer associated with it is one of the Transformers producers. Yikes!)
Film aside, as a book this is a great read. If you haven’t yet read The Stars My Destination do yourself a favour and do so. (Many people, including prominent sci-fi authors, list it among the best science fiction novels ever.) And if you haven’t read it for many years, read it again and remind yourself of how good pulp fiction can be.
This one is a winner.