Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester, 1956

Ironically for a genre whose lifeblood is predicting the future, nothing dates faster than science fiction. Pick up an sf novel from the 1950s and you will probably wince at the scientific naivety, the quality of the prose, and the social attitudes embodied. On the other hand, you may pick up The Stars My Destination (or The Demolished Man, by the same author), in which case you will be astounded to realise you are reading an sf novel over 50 years old, and at least 30 years ahead of its time. It's as fresh today as when it was written, and prefigures the cyberpunk movement which was so influential from the mid-1980s.

I won't retail the plot of The Stars My Destination in any detail, because the book's not primarily about the plot, an energetic retread of The Count of Monte Cristo. Gully Foyle, the most vivid antihero since Heathcliff, sets out to revenge himself on the people who left him for dead. He's not an attractive character, and Bester never tries to pretend he is; neither are his enemies. If James Ellroy wrote science fiction, this is what he'd come up with. Bester gives us telekinesis, ("jaunting"), shadowy global corporations more powerful than governments, astounding weapons and a deeply misanthropic take on the human condition. His prose spits venom and the odd typographical conventions he employs actually add to the whole. It's modern, sparky and unencumbered by the cod-Freudianism which is the only weakness of The Demolished Man.

Because the novel is so singular it's easy to overlook the significant technical achievements it incorporates. Antihero novels are hard to pull off, especially when they have real antiheroes rather than the sheep in wolves' clothing so often passed off as antiheroes. But Gully Foyle is murderer, rapist, thug. Morally he scarcely improves over the course of the novel (I've seen it described as a bildungsroman, but I'm not convinced Gully develops enough to merit that). What Bester gives him is energy, durability, cunning and an absolute will to achieve his ends. He's hard to like, but in a perverse way he's easy to admire--a testament to Bester's narrative skill. The world-building is all the more effective for its unobtrusiveness: we never have the sense that the relentless pace of the story is on hold while Bester fills us in on the background. The tawdry hi-tec industrialisation Bester paints is so compelling that decades later we can see echoes of it in Neuromancer, itself one of the most influential novels in the field.

How has it influenced me?

It's hard to imagine any writer of speculative fiction not having taken on board this novel; like The Lord of the Rings, it's part of the genre's kitbag (and arguably has worn rather better). As a pithy exercise in world-building and a dynamic character study, it sets a standard that few of us will meet. My first novel, The Zael Inheritance, owed much to its model of government by corporation, even if I never felt capable of pulling off a Gully Foyle.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • If you have a voice, let it off the leash
  • You can make a sympathetic character out of the most unpromising materials
  • One book can make your name forever
  • If you are going to use gimmicks like unorthodox typography, make sure they're anchored in the story


Chuck said...

"If you are going to use gimmicks like unorthodox typography, make sure they're anchored in the story"

...and legible! Remember Spacegram?

Tim Stretton said...

; - )