Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fearful Symmetry

The last SF book club book was Alfred Bester's 1956 novel "The Stars My Destination" (originally published in the UK as "Tiger, Tiger"). It concerns this fellow Gully Foyle, who goes on a rampage of vengeance against those who left him for dead in the depths of space. This is in the future, when people are able to teleport (or "jaunt") across the surface of the Earth but not through space. And in an unlikely sequence of events, Foyle also finds himself with Maori-like facial tattoos, symbolising his predatory nature; he is a total bad-ass, willing to do any number of unsavoury acts in order to attain the vengeance he desires.

It's a crazy book. A lot of the way the future society works is thought through in a credible and evocative manner, but a lot of the plot twists are rather outlandish (Foyle is several times saved from certain death by enemies of whatever planet he is on deciding to launch a surprise nuclear attack). Yet the book still works, almost as though by piling on ever more improbable events Bester manages to cancel out the unlikelihood of any one of them. The whole thing romps along at a pace that never lets you stop to question anything. It also has some wonderful SF touches – like how in a world where people can teleport across the planet, status is shown by moving as slowly as possible, so to impress people Foyle shows up to a party by train, with flunkies walking ahead of him to lay the tracks. Or a throwaway reference to how on Mars, where plants are vital producers of oxygen, the punishment for picking a flower is summary execution.

One thing people say about this book is that it is proto-cyberpunk, featuring people with technological implants, all-powerful yet strangely feudal corporations, odd future culture, and so on. And yeah, the gang's all here, all it's really lacking is people plugging into some crazy virtual reality computer system, but even with that the book feels like something very contemporary, not at all like something written in the 1950s.

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