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Alfred Bester "The Stars My Destination"


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Alfred Bester did not write many books, but the stuff he wrote in the 50s was so enjoyable and ground-breaking that his influence can be traced in many great works of SF today. "The Demolished Man" and "Tiger! Tiger!" are both tour-de-force masterpieces, and his short stories are great examples of fast-paced & intelligent entertainment.









Alfred Bester
"The Stars My Destination" (nv)
(revised from "Tiger! Tiger!")
© Galaxy, Oct 1956
novel: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1956
--all time novel : 1975 Locus /7
--all time sf novel : 1987 Locus /10
--hall of fame : 1988 Prometheus W
--sf novel : 1998 Locus /6

--/ second place sf novel
--/ wonder award
--/ adventure award
--/ style award


Reading Alfred Bester makes me wonder what the definition of a "genius" really is. How could one writer so transcend the boundaries of a genre that his fiction reads better than any bestseller today? There are literary talents out there who are excited about writing new and unconventional stuff, but in terms of reader's experience much of their output is often unreadable. And here is this Bester, who "bested" all others while writing in the 50s, in the popular market for the ready news-stand consumption - and yet he single-handedly created the cyberpunk genre (before William Gibson made it obvious), and had given the public the taste of what Philip K. Dick fiction would be like in a few years. If his "The Demolished Man" (1952) novel burned through the brains of the majority of active thinkers and raised the bar so high for ALL writers that they could only willfully gaze upon it and go smoke another cigarette in despair - then "The Stars My Destination" simply blew all the bars and barriers into an open space... telling everyone simply that "stars" are indeed Alfred Bester's destination.

And yet the writing here is so seemingly effortless, so playfully indifferent - who cares how this novel would be received? - Alfred Bester just smiles and puts in another sci-fi pyrotechnic that readers would adore and writers would emulate (much like the case with the best of Philip K. Dick's fiction). It is weird, however, that this book did not win any major awards, not even a Retro Hugo!.. - so go find the good old 50s paperback copy and nail it to the judges panel (and another copy to a writing workshop's billboard, while you're at it). Alfred Bester knew how to write intelligent AND exciting stuff in the 50s (though the quality of his output slightly declined later), any or all critics be damned.

It is also with great trepidation that we hear about the movie rights being purchased for this ground-breaking work. More power to them, but I think I'd rather go and re-read the book. "Tiger! Tiger!" (the book's original title) still makes for very compelling reading today. Its "jaunty" and visual narrative reveals quite a few deeper questions and ideas - for example, an underlying conflict between "ruthless" and "irresistible" qualities of (superior) intellect, or the discussion of what it means to be a truly liberated individual - any of that could prove to be more intense than the current cinema producers can handle.

Read an excellent review of this novel at Infinity Plus, written by Adam Roberts, who himself writes wonderfully hyper-active and intelligent SF. Plus Wiki has a good summary of the plot.
review: 07-Sep-07 (read in 1996)

READ OTHER REVIEWS FOR THIS WRITER

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COMMENTS:

3 Comments:

Blogger smartalek said...

In an art as multifaceted as literature, the very concept of "THE Best," singular, is ludicrous on the face of it.
Foundational concepts.
Originality.
World-creation at the micro- and macro-levels, and everything in between.
Characters showing an appropriate mix of what's recognizably us, and what's potentially not-us, reflecting plausible interactions among developing societal trends, technical developments, and the associated philosophic, psycho-social, experiential, and spiritual evolutions.
Convincing, complex, and compelling characters, recognizably human and otherwise, accessibly conveyed with respect, sincerity, and sympathy -- and about whom we come to care, and with whom we wish to spend our time and attention -- each with appropriate individual voices, as well as viewpoints.
Breadth, depth, and significance of themes.
Plotting that makes sense, plays fair, and doesn't violate commonsense, or the laws of the worlds involved, yet remains unpredictable, hence engaging.
A distinctive style, or set of styles, of writing, and one or more authorial voices reflecting the elegance, beauty, and power of the language(s).
At the very least, the ability to convey awe. At best, the ability to effect change and growth in the reader.
And that's just one person's list, and just off the top of the head.
With due consideration, I could think of at least a full order of magnitude more of additional criteria -- and each reader will have their own set, most (all?) of which will likely include some I'd never have thought of.
But one single work that is THE Best, given this many dimensions?
It's not only a mathematical impossibility, the very concept is laughable on its face.
And yet...
I know I'm very far from the only one who thinks, yes, there IS one: and this is it.
Your review here has touched on some of the reasons for that.
But for whatever reasons, I find myself rereading TSMD (or TT!, if you want to be pedantic about it) at least once every few years, and every single time, it has never once failed to thrill me to the core.
Yes, I wish Mr Bester had been able to give us at least a couple more at this level of brilliance.
But we're very, very lucky to have this one, so I'm not complaining.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Avi Abrams said...

This is one of the best comments we had on our site. Thank you for this. Made my day.

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Larry Jackson said...

Didn't Bester write a sequel to this book? I remember a female protagonist who by the end of the book had perfected the ability to jaunte to such a degree that she was able to jaunte through space and beyond our solar system and in the end led much of humanity with her in a collective jaunte to the stars. I can't find any mention of this book but it may have been a short story. I do remember reading it though. Does anyone know of such a book or story?

6:05 PM  

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