The basis of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is jaunting, a form of teleportation. It’s not a technology that has been developed though; it is the human mind that has found the ability to move people hundreds of miles (pg 11):
Any man was capable of jaunting provided he developed two faculties, visualization and concentration. He had to visualize completely and precisely, the spot to which he desired to teleport himself; and he had to concentrate the latent energy of his mind into a single thrust to get him there. Above all, he had to have faith … The slightest doubt would block the mind-thrust necessary for teleportation.
This, you can imagine, disrupts society. Bester, at length, expounds (pg 13):
The limitations with which every man is born necessarily limited the ability to jaunte. Some could visualize magnificently and set the co-ordinates of their destination with precision, but lacked the power to get there. Others had the power but could not, so to speak, see where they were jaunting. And space set a final limitation, for no man had ever jaunted further than a thousand miles. He could work his way in jaunting jumps over land and water from Nome to Mexico, but no jump could exceed a thousand miles.
But within three generations the entire solar system was on the jaunte. The transition was more spectacular than the change-over from horse and buggy to gasoline age five centuries before. On three planets and eight satellites, social, legal, and economic structures crashed while the new customs and laws demanded by universal jaunting mushroomed in their place.
I appreciated how persistent Bester is in explaining how disruptive jaunting is. For instance, take this paragraph on its effect on labor (pg 37):
There were land riots as the jaunting poor deserted slums to squat in plains and forests, raiding the livestock and wildlife. There was a revolution in home and office building: labyrinths and masking devices had to be introduced to prevent unlawful entry by jaunting. There were crashes and panics and strikes and famines as pre-jaunte industries failed.
Plagues and pandemics raged as jaunting vagrants carried disease and vermin into defenseless countries. Malaria, elephantiasis, and the breakbone fever came north to Greenland; rabies returned to England after an absence of three hundred years. The Japanese beetle, the citrus scale, the chestnut blight, and the elm borer spread to every corner of the world, and from one forgotten pesthole in Borneo, leprosy, long imagined extinct, reappeared.
Crime waves swept the planets and satellites as their underworlds took to jaunting with the night around the clock, and there were brutalities as the police fought them without quarter. There came a hideous return to the worst prudery of Victorianism as society fought the sexual and moral dangers of jaunting with protocol and taboo. A cruel vicious war broke out between the Inner Planets - Venus, Terra, and Mars - and the Outer Satellites … a war brought on by the economic and political pressures of teleportation.
Until the Jaunte Age dawned, the three Inner Planets (and the Moon)had lived in delicate economic balance with the seven inhabited Outer Satellites: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto of Jupiter; Rhea and Titan of Saturn; and Lassell of Neptune. The United Outer Satellites supplied raw materials for the Inner Planets’ manufactories, and a market for their finished goods. Within a decade this balance was destroyed by jaunting.
The Outer Satellites, raw young worlds in the making, had bought 70 per cent of the I.P. transportation production. Jaunting ended that. They had bought 90 per cent of the I.P. communications production. Jaunting ended that too. In consequence I.P. purchase of O.S. raw materials fell off.
With trade exchange destroyed it was inevitable that the economic war would degenerate into a shooting war. Inner Planets’ cartels refused to ship manufacturing equipment to the Outer Satellites, attempting to protect themselves against competition. The O.S. confiscated the plants already in operation on their worlds, broke patent agreements, ignored royalty obligations … and the war was on.
It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways. The Classicists and Romantics who hated it were unaware of the potential greatness of the twenty-fifth century. They were blind to a cold fact of evolution … that progress stems from the clashing merger of antagonistic extremes, out of the marriage of pinnacle freak. Classicists and Romantics alike were unaware that the Solar System was trembling on the verge of a human explosion that would transform man and make him the master of the universe.
Laborers in heavy work clothes, still spattered with snow, were on their way south to their homes after a shift in the north woods. Fifty white clad dairy clerks were headed west toward St. Louis. They followed the morning from the Eastern Time Zone to the Pacific Zone. And from eastern Greenland, where it was already noon, a horde of white-collar office workers was pouring into New York for their lunch hour.
The reader could easily throw this paragraph away if he or she was just following the story. Bester is committed to the concept though. He even applies it to a class of people who are routinely ignored in literature and society in general. As he explains, "Jack-jaunting" gives opportunity to the underclass (pg 129):
The jaunting age had crystallized the hoboes, tramps, and vagabonds of the world into a new class. They followed the night from east to west, always in darkness, always in search of loot, the leavings of disaster, carrion. If earthquake shattered a warehouse, they were jacking it the following night. If fire opened a house or explosion split the defenses of a shop, they jaunted in and scavenged. They called themselves Jack-jaunters. They were jackals.
As Bester explained at length earlier, jaunting renders many technologies obsolete. Using that technology - essentially being wasteful - is a sign of wealth (pg 42):
Devoted to the principle of conspicuous waste, on which all society is based, Presteign of Presteign had fitted his Victorian mansion in Central Park with elevators, house phones, dumb-waiters and all the other labor-saving devices which jaunting had made obsolete. The servants in that giant gingerbread castle walked dutifully from room to room, opening and closing doors, and climbing stairs.
I love his description of the rich and powerful arriving at a party. They are almost like hipsters in their love of retro (pg 162):
Presteign of Presteign arose, dressed with the aid of his valet and barber, descended to the morning room with the aid of an elevator, and breakfasted, assisted by a butler, footman, and waitresses. He left the morning room and entered his study. In an age when communication systems were virtually extinct - when it was far easier to jaunte directly a man’s office for a discussion than to telephone or telegraph - Presteign still maintained an antique telephone switchboard with an operator in his study.
The sightseers buzzed and exclaimed as the famous and near-famous of clan and sept arrived by car, by coach, by litter, by every form of luxurious transportation. Presteign of Presteign himself stood before the door, iron gray, handsome, smiling his basilisk smile, and welcomed society to his open house. Hardly had a celebrity stepped through the door and disappeared behind the screen when another, even more famous, came clattering up in a vehicle more fabulous.
Bester links jaunting to interplanetary war, economic upheaval, and societal regression, and still takes the time to note that AAA and the DMV have evolved into jaunting classification bureaus.
The Colas arrived in a band wagon. The Esso family (six sons, three daughters) was magnificent in a glass-topped Greyhound bus. But Greyhound arrived (in an Edison electric runabout) hard on their heels and there was much laughter and chaffing at the door. But when Edison of Westinghouse dismounted from his Esso-fueled gasoline buggy, completing the circle, the laughter on the steps turned into a roar.
Bester throws a lot of sci-fi concepts at the reader. There’s jaunting, planetary colonization, corporate power and disloyalty, and solar war. But there’s also Foyle’s lethal body enhancements, a staple of science fiction. It is partially revealed that less dangerous body modifications are, if not common, known by society and attained by some people. Robin Wednesbury is a (one-way) telepath. Sigurd is a very powerful child telepath on Mars. The Skoptsy cult willingly remove all sensory nerves. Saul Dagenham uses “Nightmare theater” to torture Foyle. Some of the concepts seemed gratuitous. Some of them felt too convenient. Then again the story takes place in the twenty-fifth century. Bester deserves credit for not just transferring the 1950s to the 2450s.
The one concept omitted above is the driver of Foyle’s opposition. PyrE is the reason Foyle is being chased (pg 216):
“PyrE is a pyrophoric alloy. A pyrophore is a metal which emits sparks when scraped or struck. PyrE emits energy, which is why E, the energy symbol, was added to the prefix Pyr. PyrE is a solid solution of transplutonian isotopes, releasing thermonuclear energy on the order of stellar Phoenix action. Its discoverer was of the opinion that he had produced the equivalent of the primordial protomatter which exploded the Universe. “
Through most of this book I found myself asking “What is happening?” and, more curiously, “Why is it happening?” We open with Gully Foyle, who has been floating in a storage locker in the wreckage of the Nomad for six months. Our protagonist is described as
“My God!” Jisbella exclaimed.
Dagenham silenced her with a gesture and bent over Presteign. “How is it brought to critical mass, Presteign? How is the energy release?”
“As the original energy was generated in the beginning of time,” Presteign droned. “Through Will and Idea.”
“I’m convinced he’s a Cellar Christian,” Dagenham muttered to Y’ang-Yeovil. He raised his voice. “Will you explain, Presteign?”
“Through Will and Idea,” Presteign repeated. “PyrE can only be exploded by psychokinesis. Its energy can only be released by thought. It must be willed to explode and the thought directed at it. That is the only way.”
“There’s no key? No formula?”
“No. Only Will and Idea are necessary.” The glazed eyes closed.
“God in heaven!” Dagenham mopped his brow. “Will this give the Outer Satellites pause, Yeovil?”
“It’ll give us all pause.”
“It’s the road to hell,” Jisbella said.
A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition. Energizes at minimum. The stereotype Common Man. Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key. Not recommended for promotion. Has reached a dead end.
When the Vorga comes upon his distress signal and declines to pick him up, Foyle’s ambition, in a word, energizes. What follows is a mad quest for revenge against the people responsible for leaving Foyle to die in deep space. This “dead end” jury-rigs the Nomad’s propulsion system to send him somewhere, anywhere. He’s picked up by a forgotten cult living on an asteroid. The wife assigned to him is not enough to keep him from escaping, despite six months in a storage locker. He leaves her, nearly destroying the asteroid, but takes a horrible facial tattoo. His single-mindedness is noteworthy.
Foyle learns to jaunte at a rehabilitation hospital in New York City under the tutelage of Robin Wednesbury. He quickly launches an attack, but he isn’t sophisticated enough. For one, he targets the actual ship instead of the crew or the owners. He’s captured, but kept alive because Nomad was carrying valuable cargo. Things get weirder. He’s sent to a subterranean prison in France, but escapes - or rather, is allowed to escape - with the help of a fellow prisoner, Jisbella. Gully finds the asteroid, the Nomad, and its loot. For Foyle to continue at this point seems mad. He’s just found millions of credits worth of platinum. The best revenge, they say, is living well. He should buy himself a life of luxury as repayment.
Instead Foyle resurfaces as Geoffrey Fourmyle, the owner of an outlandish circus. The money he obtained on the Nomad paid for a body modification that allows him to turn ultra-fast and ultra-lethal. It also buys him into high society where he looks for the people responsible for his abandonment. Each time he tracks down another link in the chain, the link is mysteriously killed. More confusingly, each time a major event happens in his quest, he sees - not hallucinates - a burning image of himself. All the while, the businessman Presteign and his hired gun Dagenham, the lawyer Sheffield, and the intelligence agent Y'ang-Yeovil continue to search for him.
The whole time I kept asking myself, “for this?” Is this really all about revenge? His hunters’ motives are just as perplexing. They are keeping him alive because of the cargo Nomad was carrying. “PyrE” is a supposedly dangerous compound, but no one can explain what it does. Without explanation, I was left wondering if this story was worth a novel, let alone a novel listed on top sci-fi lists.
When the revelations come, they hit hard. They are worth the earlier confusion. It’s worth not reading if you don’t want spoilers. PyrE is insanely dangerous. Foyle finds out he knows how to space-jaunte and hops across the galaxy. The burning man is Foyle jaunting through time. Foyle’s senses get crossed so that he sees sound and hears light. It is simply an amazing few pages as Bester describes what is happening to Foyle.
And after all of this, another revelation. Foyle has a change of heart. He regrets his vengeful attacks. Given the lengths he went and the people he rolled over to get revenge, this makes sense. He realizes the damage he’s done with his crazed quest. It was a quest for control. He then takes a mental leap in applying this lesson to his opponents. He sees that same lust for control in people like Presteign, his daughter Olivia, Sheffield, and Dagenham. Men like Gully Foyle - “the stereotype Common Man” - were the will of men like Geoffrey Fourmyle. He doesn’t want any more common men. (pg 225)
“No. I believe in them. I was one of them before I turned tiger. They can all turn uncommon if they’re kicked awake like I was.”
“Stop treating them like children and they’ll stop behaving like children.Explain the loaded gun to them. Bring it all out into the open.” Foyle laughed savagely. “I’ve ended the last star-chamber conference in the world. I’ve blown the last secret wide open. No more secrets from now on. … No more telling the children what’s best for them to know. … Let ‘em all grow up. It’s about time.”
So he releases knowledge of PyrE and space-jaunting to the public. It will force the common man into being uncommon. In effect, Foyle is forcing another step in human evolution. It will now be a necessity to be what Foyle is. The Dagenhams and Yeovils of the world will not be able to control it all (whether they used to do it for greed, patriotism, or paternalism). “Then let them learn or die. We’re all in this together. Let’s live together or die together.”
“Christ, he is insane.”
“Am I? I’ve handed life and death back to the people who do the living and dying. The common man’s been whipped and led long enough by driven men like us. … Compulsive men … Tiger men who can’t help lashing the world before them. We’re all tigers, the three of us, but who the hell are we to make decisions for the world just because we’re compulsive? Let the world make its own choice between life and death. Why should we be saddled with the responsibility?”
It’s a surprising turn.
Some other quotes I liked:
On fear (pg 61):
Every child in the world imagines that its phantasy world is unique to itself. Psychiatry knows that the joys and terrors of private phantasies are a common heritage shared by all mankind. Fears, guilts, terrors, and shames could be interchanged, from one man to the next, and none would notice the difference. The therapy department at Combined Hospital had recorded thousands of emotional tapes and boiled them down to one all-inclusive all-terrifying performance in Nightmare Theater.
Religion is outlawed (pg 145):
“Cellar Christians!” Foyle exclaimed. He and Robin peered through the window. Thirty worshippers of assorted faiths were celebrating the New Year with a combined and highly illegal service. The twenty-fifth century had not yet abolished God, but it had abolished organized religion.
Something from the inside (pg 188):
Dagenham smiled. “Yes, no matter how we defend ourselves against the outside we’re always licked by something from the inside. There’s no defense against betrayal, and we all betrayal ourselves.”
Revenge (pg 194):
Revenge is for dreams ... never for reality.
And I just like his description of the land looking like corduroy (pg 228):
In Texas, where Prof. John Mantley had had the same baffling experience with PyrE, most of the residues had gone down the shaft of an exhausted oil well which was also used to accommodate radioactive wastes. A deep water table had absorbed much of the matter and spread it slowly over an area of some ten square miles. Ten square miles of Texas flats shook themselves into corduroy. A vast untapped deposit of natural gas at last found a vent and came shrieking up to the surface where sparks from flying stones ignited it into a roaring torch, two hundred feet high.