Alfred Bester’s 1956 The Stars My Destination is a standalone tale of REVENGE! And a change of heart.
Psychic teleportation transformed society. The economic effects triggered war between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites.
Gulliver Foyle survived the destruction of the interplanetary space craft Nomad only to spend six months trapped on the hulk. When finally another ship, the Vorga, came within rescue range, Foyle was quick to fire off distress signals. Inexplicably, the Vorga ignored the flares and continued on its way.
Until this moment, Foyle had been an entirely unremarkable prole, uneducated, unmotivated, and destined to live and die in obscurity. Vorga’s act gave Foyle the motivation he had previously lacked. Now he has goals: survive and make the crew of Vorga pay for leaving him in deep space.
After a misadventure involving the Scientific People, an isolated community of savages in the asteroid belt, Foyle makes his way to Earth. His first revenge attempt: bombing Vorga on the launch pad. This bold effort fails abjectly. Foyle is tossed into a supposedly inescapable prison, the Gouffre Martel, there to languish and die of old age. Or so the judges think.
Foyle proves to be of interest to the Inner Planet intelligence services, who want to retrieve the ship on which Foyle had been trapped, the Nomad. It just so happened to have been transporting a supply of PyrE, an explosive of unparalleled power. With PyrE, the Inner Planets would win the war. Without it, it seems likely the Outer Satellites will win. It must be found! Foyle must be interrogated!
Foyle is not told about the PyrE. The interrogator tells him that the Nomad is of interest because it was carrying platinum worth a vast fortune. This gives Foyle to think: if he could escape, if he could retrieve the platinum, then he would be wealthy enough to take a thoroughly satisfying revenge on the Vorga.
As chance would have it, his cell allows him to communicate with fellow prisoner Jisabella “Jiz” McQueen. Jiz is the tutor that Foyle so desperately needs. With her help, Foyle escapes the inescapable prison. Under her guidance he transforms himself from uneducated brute to a suave and cultured monster. Believing his interrogator’s tale, Foyle returns to the Nomad, where he recovers both platinum and PyreE.
Armed with a fortune, cybernetic enhancements, and an unwavering thirst for revenge, Foyle poses as the wealthy dandy Geoffrey Fourmyle. Aided by allies willing and unwilling, he sets out to find and punish the crew of Vorga. And to find out who ordered the Vorga to ignore his distress signals and discover why they did so.
What he does not expect is that he will develop an impediment to his plans: a conscience.
It’s possible that “Jiz” was as unfortunate a nick-name in 1957 as it is now. One wonders why Bester chose that particular name. Also of note: the revelation that
For two hundred years the IPAF had entrusted its intelligence work to the Chinese who, with a five thousand-year history of cultivated subtlety behind them, had achieved wonders.
Well, I guess it’s better than Wolfbane’s “Asian arts reflect the low calorie diet of the East.” Plus if we start ear-flicking books for kinda racist worldbuilding, what next? Scowling at middle-aged leads hitting on middle-schoolers?
There are not one, not two, but three women who play significant roles in the plot. Two have physical disabilities that isolate them from society. All are subject to the draconian, misogynistic customs of their era. One reacts by trying to maintain a low profile but the other two reject convention all together: one becomes a dashing outlaw while the other .… well, that would be telling. It’s not that unusual for Before Time SF to casually relegate women to the status of property, but more unusual for them to object to it in meaningful ways.
I think we’ve all completely upended our lives to pursue personal justice when institutions fail us. It’s completely normal. Indeed, enthusiastic cackling while fitting bricks into position is held by many to be endearing. That said, it’s one thing to wall people up over unforgivable slights and another to cross the line into outright derangement. Foyle does the second. Foyle is remarkably unsympathetic even for an antihero. He and Thomas Covenant would get along fine. Even when he repents, his reparations seem to me to be completely misguided, not to mention dangerous. To reveal more would be a spoiler.
Oh, and by the way … you’ve surely twigged to the fact that the plot is a blatant rip-off of homage to The Count of Monte Cristo. Except much shorter. And with more than a healthy dose of A. E. Van Vogt.
The book is based on a plot that had already become a cliché. To this it added tropes that may have been fresh in 1957 and seem tired now: anti-hero lead, sexual assault as plot parsley, world run by malevolent megacorps, cybernetic enhancements available to the rich. The novel was a bestseller in its day, but I guess that if I fed this to my Young Readers, it would not go over well. They will have read better books using those tropes or will be turned off by the 1950s values. This is Bester’s reward for writing an influential book: generations of writers cribbing from him transform something new into a collection of familiar clichés.
The book is historically significant, but it may not be all that readable to anyone but a dedicated SF historian (which I suppose I am). There’s one point in its favor: it’s short and brisk, unlike The Count of Monte Cristo.