Inspired by tipsiness and a number of ILE threads I took advantage of Fopp’s ‘SF Masterworks’ remainder sale and snapped up a few sci-fi novels. The first of these, THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester, I wolfed down overnight. It reminded me of why I used to like reading sci-fi so much when I was a teenager – it was quick, easy, packed with ideas and incident, and kept the attention to the last page. It also reminded me of why I stopped reading it: the male characters were wooden, the female characters atrocious, every single ‘love scene’ is a variant on “I hate you!”/”I hate you too!”/They fell together in passion. JUST GIVE US THE SPACE WAR ACTION ALFRED!

Unfortunately – and this is also the reason the book is nominated as a sci-fi classic – it becomes clear that the anti-hero’s ‘character development’ is the main point of the story. Neil Gaiman in his introduction certainly thinks so, and seems very impressed by Gully Foyle’s journey from brutish man-animal to conscience-stricken spokesman for humanity. I was not impressed. Foyle is set up from the first chapter as a space-opera superhuman – strong, ruthless, amoral and driven by revenge. He is an unbelievable character and the reader accepts him as such. For Bester to then try to strip him of his unbelievability is a mistake – to call it character development is a con. It’s more like Pinocchio becoming a real boy – a change of being, not of character.

(You can see why it appeals to Gaiman, though. His generation of comics writers specialised in taking cartoon characters and treating them ‘realistically’ – a similar cheat where the contrast between before and after creates an illusion of depth.)

The book’s 1956 origins were also very apparent (and not just in the sexual politics) – you get used to little anachronisms like a 25th century society still using 50s typesetting devices, but one particular plot point seemed very curious now. The hero is tattooed on his face, with results so horrifying that everyone who sees him screams and is instantly repulsed. In 1956, facial tattoos must have been almost unthinkable in mainstream society – now the face as described would barely raise an eyebrow, even if Gully Foyle would probably not find a bank job. The cover of the book makes him look like a chubbier Darth Maul.

For all this it’s still a solid, entertainingly nasty romp and I’d recommend it for a train journey.