Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Stars My Destination - Book Review

Gully Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class.

SKILLS: none
MERITS: none

That's the official verdict on Gully Foyle, unskilled space crewman.

But right now he is the only survivor on his drifting, wrecked spaceship, and when another space vessel, the Vorga, ignores his distress flares and sails by, Gully becomes obsessed with revenge. He endures 170 days alone in deep space before finding refuge on the Sargasso Asteroid and returning to Earth to track down the crew and owners of the Vorga. But, as he works out his murderous grudge, Gully Foyle also uncovers a secret of momentous proportions... (Synopsis from Amazon UK. Click here for The Stars My Destination on Goodreads.)

This is one of those sci-fi classics that you hear a lot about, that everyone says you should read, but that you never really get around to buying because there are so many new books coming out all the time. But thankfully my husband bought me this one for Christmas, and I’m so glad he did. This book is fantastic, packed full of ideas and such a gripping story; I can certainly understand why it’s considered a masterwork of science fiction.

At its most basic level, The Stars My Destination is a revenge story. Gully Foyle, left to die out in space, wants revenge on the ship that abandoned him to his fate. At first his revenge mission is basic and not very well thought through; he attacks the physical ship itself in its shipyard. But Gully soon learns patience and forces himself to get into a much longer game, determined to find the person responsible for the order to leave him. This not-so-simple mission of revenge pushes him to his limits, forcing him to learn and adapt, and to discover skills that seemed impossible.

I found the revenge mission itself interesting and compelling; when I thought about it, it’s actually quite a rare kind of revenge story. Most stories based on revenge involve a person trying to gain justice for what was done to another person – a wife or husband, girlfriend or boyfriend, brother or sister, mother or father (so many revenge stories are based on the death of parents) etc. It was fun to read about a victim trying to get some payback for himself, for once.

Having said that, Gully Foyle doesn’t stay a victim for long. He’s definitely an anti-hero, and he does enough things in the book to make him unlikeable, and yet, I couldn’t help wanting him to succeed. It also helped that while Gully started off a brute, he gradually began to grow a conscience and to see the bigger picture beyond his own petty quest. Though I’m sure reactions to him will vary (for some, he might have gone too far to ever be forgiven), his character arc is a very interesting and believable one. The author also does a great job of showing the collateral damage of Gully’s mission, unexpectedly reintroducing characters who had the misfortune to be brought into his circle of destruction, and showing how he has affected their lives for the worse. With sometimes surprising compassion, the collision of Gully’s story with others’ also explores how certain science fictional advances have disempowered various members of society.

Despite having a strong main character, the book isn’t simply character-driven, and it’s also about a lot more than revenge. Gully is more important than he realises, and soon there are several groups of people trying to find him, with intergalactic peace and perhaps even the fate of humanity at stake. There are so many ideas in this book, and so much happens, that it’s hard to believe it’s so short. There really isn’t any padding; the story shoots through years and space, exploring a number of different societies and people. It also explores how one development in human evolution – the ability to teleport large distances with the power of the mind (called ‘jaunting’) – has had incredible ramifications, and how this has affected all levels of society. The author really thinks this through, and the universe he has created is fascinating.

You also have to give it to the author for managing to begin the story with an entire chapter of infodump that is completely absorbing. This is pretty much Rule No.1 on the List of Writing Don’ts, and yet here it really works. This is probably due to the entertaining and conversational way that the information is given, avoiding the feeling of simply being presented with a history textbook.

This book was surprising and unexpected in many ways – in the depth of the worldbuilding and the author’s observations on human behaviour and society, in the compelling anti-hero main character, in his simple yet exciting mission, and in the sheer amount of ideas and events in this short, fast-paced book. I didn’t always agree with the messages that I think the author was trying to get across, but I did find it an entertaining and thought-provoking read. This certainly deserves to be considered a science fiction masterwork, and has convinced me that I need to pick up more of sci-fi and fantasy’s older classics.

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