I’ve been kicking this one around for a while now, trying to figure out how to approach it, and I’ve come up with no brilliant answers, so here it is.
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester:
The Stars My Destination is a book I first read when I was way too young to understand it. Someone bought it for me when I was about 11 in a large collection of short SF novels. I read the whole collection several times, and I have almost no memory of what else was in it. The Stars My Destination kicked my ass so hard it literally blew the other stories out of my mind.
Synopsis for those who haven’t read it:
In a fully populated solar system of have’s and have not’s, a war is heating up between the inner planets and the outer planets. One victim of this war is Gully Foyle, a low level mechanic on a freighter plying the space lanes. Gully is described as the “least necessary to survive, therefore the most likely to.”
When his ship the Nomad is destroyed, he fights a one man battle to survive in the drifting wreck. After weeks of living in a tiny but airtight locker, he sees a sister ship from his fleet, the Vorga, pass him by in spite of his distress calls. This callous act awakens Gully to a desire for vengeance strong enough to overcome his natural lethargy. It drives him to not only survive, but find a way to escape his predicament and return to Earth to destroy the ship Vorga and those who flew her.
His quest for vengeance will take his across the solar system (and beyond) through freak shows and future circuses. Through prisons in the bowels of the Earth and the mansions of the fabulously wealthy. Through asteroid colonies and Martian terraforming projects. He’ll face off against governments, secret agents, cybernetic commandos, telepaths, religious cultists, and his own twisted nature.
In his own words, “I kill you, Vorga. I kill you filthy.”
Part of the reason this book kicked my ass so hard as a kid is because I’d never met a man like Gully Foyle before. The SF I read and loved was filled with Heinleinian supermen. Rock jawed rocket men of perfect physique, flawless intellect, and unimpeachable moral codes. They faced off with and defeated everything the future could throw at them with the relentless determination of those who are predestined to succeed. These stories taught me that the future might be dangerous, but humanity kicks ass, and we were always going to win.
Gully Foyle lumbered into my naive world. He was big, and stinking, and angry, and uneducated. He sat in a locker waiting to die until some made him angry enough to try and live. And survival wasn’t the drive. It was vengeance. And stupid vengeance. Gully starts out trying to blow up Vorga herself, as if destroying the ship that passed him by is enough. It takes someone else explaining to him that he should be avenging himself upon the people who made the decision to pass him by, before he realizes his mistake.
And Gully destroys the people around him. He sucks everyone who comes across his path into his drive for revenge, destroying their lives in the process. He finds love in the depths of the world’s worst prison with a fellow inmate, Jezebel McQueen. But as soon as they escape together, Gully winds up having to make a choice between Jezebel and his revenge, and he chooses revenge, abandoning her to her fate. Gully is a monster. He rapes the first person who treats him with kindness. He murders, he steals, nothing is more important than his vengeance.
But he’s a fascinating monster. He’s a monster that grows and evolves throughout the book. He eventually comes to terms with his nature, recognizing it for what it is. His self awareness is such that he never excuses himself for the horrible things he’s done, but he also doesn’t ask for forgiveness. At several points in the book, he offers people he’s wronged the chance to repay him in kind. He puts himself at their mercy, freely admitting that he deserves to be destroyed by them.
And he remains a monster right to the end. By the end of the book, he makes a decision to risk millions, if not billions, of human lives in order to make a philosophical point to the self appointed masters of humanity. The fact that I largely agree with his point doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s willing to kill people to make it.
To my eleven year old self, Gully Foyle was a revelation. He was a bad man, who wanted bad things, and who did evil to get them. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
This book’s fingerprints are all over The Expanse. The fully colonized and inhabited solar system. The shifting of planetary tribalism to interplanetary tribalism. The willingness for big governments and big corporations to risk millions of lives in their quest for a stronger grip on power. All of these things are visible in the universe of The Expanse.
But more than anything, Gully himself has been stamped on our books. Gully, the blue collar space flier. The man for whom traveling from planet to planet in a space ship is a job, and not a particularly good one. A future space travel in which the astronauts are not two fisted fighting men with a half dozen PhD’s, but pipefitters, and electricians, and guys who swab the decks. I think the Canterbury from Leviathan Wakes would comfortably fly in the same skies as the Nomad and the Vorga.
The Stars My Destination painted a solar system that had actual humans in it. With all of their greed, and racism, and pettiness intact. Gully is the extreme of all of that, but none of the other characters that appear are without their flaws. They don’t see themselves as the brave pioneers of the future. They are worried about money, and sex, and power. They look more like us than any of the steely eyed rocket men SF was famous for.
And that’s never left my mind. When I watched Alien for the first time, the thing I loved the most wasn’t the monster. It was Parker and Brett, the space jockeys Bester had promised me all those years before. Just a couple of Joe’s in gray jumpsuits walking around the spaceship with toolbelts on, fixing a leaky pipe here, and bad wiring connection there. Worried about their bonuses and who had to cook dinner that night.
Bester taught me that the future will have humans in it, and it’s a lesson I never forgot.