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Book Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

December 6, 2013 4 comments

Man and a redheaded woman standing in close proximity. The man has red marks on his face.Summary:
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teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.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.

Review:
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

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-56

October 4, 2012 2 comments

Book cover featuring space ships and people.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1953 to 1956.  The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (1953)–In the future the entire world runs on the basis of consumerism, and ad men have risen to the top of the heap, above even the president.  Courtenay is one of these ad men whose agency is assigned colonizing Venus.  Soon, Courtnay finds himself in a battle of minds and more with the Consies–the Conservationists who want to save the people and the planet from consumerism.

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)–A village idiot finds himself caring for twins with teleportation abilities, a precocious little girl with telekinesis powers, a baby with Down’s Syndrome, and a boy who he found near to death on the street.  What they can accomplish together could change the entire world.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)–After nuclear war destroyed all cities and broke down society’s ability to depend on technology, the survivors turned to the Amish and Mennonites to learn a new way.  Now everyone is following a simple lifestyle religion of one variety or another but there are rumors that somewhere is a place called Bartorstown that still follows the old, sinful ways.

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson (1956)–A married WWII vet with a young daughter discovers that he is shrinking by 1/7 of an inch a day.

Review:
This is my second Library of America read, and I think I’m officially addicted.  There’s something delightful about burying yourself in a topic or theme of American literature complete with useful notes that are not overwhelming but still give you enough background knowledge to come away with more than just the joy of reading the books but some understanding of the time period and genre.  Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I will review the books individually but first I want to say that any Library of America book is always worth your time. Just be sure to choose a topic or author that interests you.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
This was my favorite book in the collection by far. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that it is basically Mad Men IN SPACE. What is not to love about that?!  In addition to that, it can sometimes be difficult to be sucked in by older scifi because even if the theme or ideas it addresses was new in its time, I’m from a later time and have heard it a million times already.  This book somehow manages to be unique in spite of all the books about a future awash in consumerism that I’ve read.  I think what gives it the unique edge is the dual focus on advertising and the conservationist movement.  Also the relationship between the main character and his doctor wife is progressive and refreshing.  She is smart, her own person, has her own career and ideas, and she is still depicted in a positive light.  Also the idea of a trial marriage is essentially the couple living together before getting married, which was surprising to see in something from the 1950s.  It also manages to be witty while addressing hard-hitting issues.  It’s the perfect scifi.
5 out of 5 stars

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
This book in contrast was dull and borderline offensive, repeatedly, throughout.  Sturgeon utilizes lyrical prose to the extent that the plot suffers.  He gets so caught up in making the language beautiful that the plot gets shoved to the side, and the reader is left wondering what, precisely, is going on.  The book is divided into thirds, and the first third is the most confusing of all.  Sturgeon repeatedly changes perspectives between different characters with no rhyme, reason, warning, or even signal.  There’s not even handy squiggly lines letting you know you’re into a new section.  This improves a bit in the final two sections of the book, but only a bit.  The borderline offensiveness comes in with three of the characters.  There are twin girls who can teleport, and beyond their teleportation skills their most identifiable characteristics are: 1) they never keep their clothes on and 2) they are black.  They of course are referred to as “Negro” or “colored” throughout the book, which is better than the baby with Down’s Syndrome who is described as a “mongoloid,” and never even is given a name but is simply referred to as “Baby.”  The crux of the idea–that people come together with different psychic abilities as the next step of evolution–is creative and interesting, but the execution is dull and drags.
3 out of 5 stars

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
It’s not an unheard of idea for a post-apocalyptic society to revert to less technology-laden ways of doing things, but the execution is certainly unique here.  Many people are fascinated by Mennonite and Amish culture, and this takes that culture and adapts it to a scifi, post-nuclear future.  It is definitely engaging.  The plot is strong and consistent.  I was particularly impressed with how Brackett shows the passage of time when nothing necessarily happens, such as when the main character spends a few months laying low and helping with the crops.  Motivation is clear, and the setting is well-done.  I was disappointed though with the very narrowly envisioned role for women.  It makes sense that women would be put into traditional roles in the groups modeled after the Mennonites and the Amish, but even the most progressive group presented in the book still seems to think women can only cook and clean.  It’s disheartening.  The male main characters spend their time striving for knowledge and indeed the point of the book seems to be about the need humans have to acquire knowledge, but it also gives the impression that this should only be embraced in men.  The one female character who shows any similar leanings is fairly quickly quashed back to the home.  I found this extra disappointing since this is the only book in the collection written by a woman.  The rest of the read is enjoyable and imaginative though.
4 out of 5 stars

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
This book feels the most formulaic of the bunch, perhaps because this trope has made its way so solidly into scifi.  Some person finds something about themselves slowly changing and they can’t do anything to stop it.  Toss in the ant-sized person, and it struggles to find anything unique to say.  I’m no expert, so perhaps this was the first book to have this kind of plot, but the fact remains that there’s nothing that makes this one stick out as special.  In fact, as a child of the 90s, I found myself repeatedly thinking that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was more engaging and less fatalistic.  I am sure scifi purists would argue in favor of this book.  It’s Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame).  It has an exciting plot and addresses gender norms and what makes a person feel like a man in an interesting way.  But I found it to largely be an average product of its time with an expected plot and the usual nuclear catalyst.  I also found the ending to be a bit of a cop-out, particularly since it’s evident that Matheson meant it to be inspirational, and I found myself rather unmoved.  It is clearly a classic for a reason–representative of its times, strong plot, interesting themes–but I did not find it to be particularly engaging.
3 out of 5 stars

In Conclusion
This is an interesting collection of 1950s scifi that clearly shows what scientific advancements had people thinking and concerned, primarily nuclear war/weapons/power but also the newly highly commercialized culture, as well as possibilities in psychiatry.  A couple of the books fall short of being truly entertaining in modern times, but they are still interesting to anyone who enjoys the history of scifi.  Additionally, The Long Tomorrow could easily become a sleeper hit today with the current interest in “bonnet” books.  Without a doubt, though, the book that stands the test of time the best is The Space Merchants.  It is unique, engaging, and has a thought-provoking vision of the future.  The collection itself is primarily recommended to scifi fans or those with an interest in 1950s American culture, but The Space Merchants is recommended to all.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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