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Monday, August 13, 2012

William Gibson on “a seamless pop artifact,” The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Last year The Guardian asked twenty-four leading science fiction writers to choose their favorite novel in the genre. Only one book was selected twice: Michael Moorcock and William Gibson each chose The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1957) as his favorite. Moorcock cites the book's many layers:
Bester's predictions included a world where all the powerful aristocratic families carry the names of Heinz, Chrysler, Sara Lee and most of the brands we are familiar with; a world where democracy has been subverted and strange cults, reflecting aspects of our modern world, have grown up. For me, it made as strong an impression as [John] Bunyan and reminds me why the best science fiction still contains, as in [J. G.] Ballard, vivid imagery and powerful prose coupled to a strong moral vision.
Richard M. Powers cover
for Signet edition (1957)
In The Stars My Destination Bester transplants Alexandre Dumas’s enduring tale of relentless revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, far into outer space and a complex and dark future. With themes of teleportation, cybernetic body enhancement, and megacorporate political control, the novel prefigures many of the elements that later characterize cyperpunk fiction. Gibson, “noir prophet of cyberpunk” and inventor of the term “cyberspace,” credits the book with having a profound effect on him:
Perfectly surefooted, elegantly pulpy, dizzying in its pace and sweep, TSMD is still as much fun as anything I've ever read. When I was lifting the literary equivalent of weights, in training for my own first novel [Neuromancer (1984)], it was my talisman: evidence of how many different kinds of ass one quick narrative could kick. And that sheen of exuberant postwar modernism? They just aren't making any more of that.
The Stars My Destination is one of the novels selected for the two-volume Library of America collection American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, which will arrive in bookstores in late September (and is available now through the LOA website). To celebrate the inclusion of The Stars My Destination in the collection, Gibson has contributed an original essay to the set's companion website in which he describes what he discovered when, in his twenties, he reread Bester’s seminal novel:
It blew, as we used to say, my mind. I hadn’t, I saw, actually been able to read it fully before. It had been too fast for me, too gloriously relentless, too brilliant. I hadn’t been able to appreciate the extent to which Bester strips the dross from classic mechanisms of fiction, because I hadn’t yet known that dross. There hadn’t yet been enough of me to be thrilled by all that the book accomplishes. 
It was, I saw in my twenties, a book that had absolutely ignored everything that science fiction had been doing when it was written. It was built on bones pilfered from Dumas and Dickens (steal only the best). It was clad in a skin of archly sophisticated Mad Ave ur-hipness, with all the grot and glitter of a fully happening dude’s postwar Manhattan (something no other science fiction writer of the era was able to offer). It was, I recognized then, an utterly urban thing. It made most of the rest of its assumed genre look hick. 
Bester’s protagonist hurls himself naked from a spaceship, fuelled by hatred. Bester’s novel hurled itself naked from the science fiction of its day, fuelled by something hipper than hatred, more potent. Into that vacuum, and on, into the actual 21st Century, Gully and the book rock. 
It is, as Bruce Sterling remarked to me on our first meeting, “a seamless pop artifact.” Few and far between, such artifacts; each one a complete anomaly.
Read Gibson’s entire appreciation here.

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