Sam-Who-Likes-Nothing – The Stars My Destination

I always wondered why I never read this book.  By the time I was in college I had read most of the pre-1960 SF classics, but for some reason this one never crossed my palms.

Now I think I know why.  Except for a certain muscularity, and a wonderful description of synesthesia toward the end, it’s not very good.

In a lot of ways, the book is simply a bad Mickey Spillane novel, with spaceships.  Too much generic tough guy, and not particularly well done, either.  We have churlishness, we have brutality, we have rape.  But it’s all glossed over pretty quickly.  And I don’t think the reader is supposed to dislike the protagonist as much as understand his animal primitiveness.  Stanley Kowalski in a space suit.  Then, about two-thirds of the way through the book, our hero has a sudden, and completely unjustified shift of character.  Unjustified, because the process of this shift within him is never shown.  It is only decided, abruptly, from one page to the next.

This was always a huge flaw in a lot of New Wave SF of the ’60s and ’70s.  Characters were likely to do anything at any time, but there was never a lot of care put into describing why.  I think the reason for this was because most SF to that point had been written as basic adventure fiction, which gave the genre a long history of not exploring its characters’ psychological motivation.  Kimball “Kim” Kinnison isn’t one of the more deeply drawn protagonists I’ve ever encountered.  Then again, he doesn’t have to be.   

There’s a big difference in what is required of a character motivationally if that character races through a series of adventures without thinking twice about what he’s doing, than there is of a character who decides two-thirds of the way through that everything he’s done so far has been wrong.  In the latter case it’s necessary that the writer show the process that brought the character to that conclusion.  The character’s change is one of the central parts of the story – it can’t be skipped.  Just as no part of the narrative process can be skipped (well, almost never, but that’s another post), no part of the character’s motivational process (or emotional, if that’s what’s important) can be skipped either.  It has to be explained as well, at least as much as the narrative.

Which a lot of genre, when it tries to reach for more than thrills and wow, fails to do.  Now, as well as then.  Given the fact that The Stars My Destination is hailed by many readers as one of the great novels in the genre, that failure of motivational clarity in SF is understandable.  But it shouldn’t be.   

If we can’t do any better than that, we’re never going to reach the stars.

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  1. 1. Sam

    Oh good, it isn’t just me then.

    I always thought The Stars My Destination was hailed as a “sci-fi classic” by people who didn’t read much sci-fi. Or much at all to be honest.

    (Another Sam.)

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    I think mostly this book is just dated. There are people whose opinion I respect who still cite it enthusiastically as a book to be read, and I think the reason is, the last time they read it was 1970-something. Ideas have changed a lot since then, particularly about things like rape. We’re not willing to give a protagonist a pass for purposefully treating a woman as a tool for revenge against humanity just because someone else brutalized him.

    Those of us who read the book now, as mature adults, also aren’t seeing it as groundbreaking– the first time someone thought of teleportation as a plot device. Have you read THE DEMOLISHED MAN? I wondered whether other works by Bester held up better over time; I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to read it after THE STARS MY DESTINATION left such a nasty taste in my brain.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    Other Sam – It’s not just us. My wife didn’t think much of it, either.

    Karen – I’m not sure it’s just dated. Van Vogt is dated and I still read him with pleasure. Of course, he’s not as demanding a writer, but I think readers need to demand more of demanding writers, and I don’t think Bester gives it. Then or now.

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    Karen – Oh, and I haven’t read The Demolished Man, but probably will.

  5. 5. JS Bangs

    I kill you filthy! Ok, not really, but I do disagree: I read it for the first time about a year ago, and I immediately appreciated its classic status. The motivation for the protag’s change is not psychologized in depth–this isn’t Dostoyevsky–but it is present, and it’s the key to the novel. I’m looking forward to reading it again when I get a chance.

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    I subscribe to John Pinette’s bit about white-water rafting. It’s not that it’s so much fun, it’s that everybody spent $2k to do it. So everyone just agreed to say it was fun rather than look like morons.

    With a stiff premium on time, completing (as I’m compelled to do) a poorly written book is tantamount to stupidity. I haven’t read many of the ‘classics’ for just this reason. It’s easy to appreciate a different or challenging cup of coffee or cigar. You’ll have a good one of either again, maybe in a couple of hours. You invest a day or two into a book that doesn’t entertain, enlighten, or at the very least, spark your imagination to write something better, well, it’s much harder to make that big come-back.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    JS – It doesn’t have to be Dostoevsky, but it does have to make sense. I just felt it didn’t really make any sense. Psyochpath today, guilt-ridden tomorrow.

    And, no, I kill YOU filthy!

    Elias – I love white water rafting. Different strokes, I guess. (Or whatever floats your boat.)

    Oy!

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    Yeah, I thought I’d love the cauldron of hell that is a Chinese hotpot too. But I’m willing to admit what a moron I was in confusing a boiling oil infused with thermonuclear peppers with my beloved bagna cauda.

    I’m also willing to admit what a moron I was in reading Hubbard and smoking those harsh candelas too. But then I didn’t spend very much on either experience. What did the rafting run you?

  9. 9. simon@kins

    I read the original Galaxy issues and this serial stuck with me. “I kill you filthy” and “Presteign of Presteign” and the Gatsby-like rags-to-riches — I liked it. It wasn’t a revelation as “The Demolished Man”, but it was pretty good. Tastes change and I know most people don’t appreciate the classics, but it’s not like this was a Dreiser novel. The book is still immanently readable and even enjoyable. As for Gully Foyle’s violence and brutality: he was practically a feral human who only learned self-control to hide his identity (those tattoos were awfully unique), but if he could evolve beyond his past and literally reach for the stars, then so could the rest of humanity. My 2 cents.

  10. 10. simon@kins

    @ Elias – I think it’s important to read bad stuff, stuff poorly written, trashy, despairingly bad, vulgar and venal, cliched and uninspired. To paraphrase Edith Bunker from All In the Family, “How can you know what’s good if you didn’t have the bad to compare it to?”

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    Simon – I appreciate the classics, but I still didn’t like this one. It doesn’t have to be Dreiser, but I still say, if the central point of a story is a change in the way your protag thinks and acts, then you have to show the internal process of how and why he changes. You can’t just show the external events.

    Go, Edith Bunker!

  12. 12. simon@kins

    I’m thinking about trotting out Gatsby as an example of an opaque protag, as we only get the polished product and the story only hints at humble origins and metamorphosis. But it’s Nick that’s the protag, first person narrative and all, right? He’s just describing the characters and environs of his world, what he’s witness to. And I’m just free associating here, but I wonder if in most successful spec fic the hero’s journery is secondary — protagonist boilerplate if you will — and it’s the nuts and bolts of the imagined world which is the true focus. Just musing, mind you. My memory is lurching and tossing up images of an Italian neo-realist movie, one about a couple who meet at a street corner. They break up, but the movie goes on, because it’s that corner that’s the point of the movie. We get to see it in different light, weather, perspective. Gah, my google-fu sucks and I can’t find the name.

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    @10, I get you Simon. The thing is, I’ve read bad. Boy-howdie, have I read bad and rather than apologize, again, for citing some of the recent ‘bad’ I’ve read, allow me to say it’s not a luxury I can afford.

    I work 50+ hours a week on the primary hustle. As of this year, I no longer log 20 hours on my part-time hustle, so I can focus on actually geting something published. With that guiding principle, I can’t waste time on anything that I can’t find some value in. It’s like hording every scrap of paper in the house at the expense of caring for my first editions of cherished books.

  14. 14. simon@kins

    Ohh! First editions! Share, share. I’ve got the 1953 Harcourt, Brace & World Childhood’s End. Great shape, but no dust jacket, alas.

  15. 15. Elias McClellan

    I’m blessed with a 1st Chilton, “Dune” but the dust jacket is torn to hell. A 1st of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” no jacket. A library 1st of “Kushiel’s Dart,” which is scarce as hen’s teeth and all of Mr. Mosley’s except “Devil in a Blue Dress.” “Dune” and a signed 1st of Octavia Butler’s “Survivor,” are my pride and joy.

    Google estate sales in your area. There are several services here on the Texas Gulf coast. All but the Mosley came to me through estate sales.

  16. 16. Max dErembourg

    I was going to make all sorts of long and well-reasoned and highly emotional arguments regarding Stars My Destination (the book that inspired SO MANY of yesterday’s and today’s sci-fi writers) but I found this guy’s review of the book…and found that -despite my years writing- I simply cannot top it.
    So, with a whole-hearted “What He Said” I refer you to:

    http://www.editoreric.com/greatlit/books/Stars.html

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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