The Stars My Destination
by Alfred Bester (1956)

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting ...

Gully Foyle starts at the bottom and claws his way up to become one of SF's strongest antiheroes. At first a nonentity, a dull space-hand with no future, he's marooned in deep space amid the wreckage of his ship Nomad. Foyle's transformation begins when the sister craft Vorga appears, ignores a frantic barrage of distress flares, and passes him by. "Vorga, I kill you filthy."

The Stars My Destination is a wildly inventive revenge melodrama, inspired by Alexandre Dumas's classic The Count of Monte Cristo. Driven by obsession, Foyle rescues himself – after a fashion – and returns, strangely disfigured, to the rich decadence of 25th-century Earth. Society has been transformed by the widespread power to teleport or "jaunte", and Bester gleefully explores the criminal possibilities.

In a first, bungled vengeance bid, Foyle tries to blow up the docked Vorga and is thrown into an underground prison whose inmates are kept in total darkness (because to teleport, you must know where you are). Like the Count of Monte Cristo in the Chateau d'If, Foyle gets educated while still captive, escapes the escape-proof jail, acquires huge wealth and a title, and begins to plot serious revenge.

Reappearing in his new identity as "Fourmyle of Ceres" – an upstart dilettante who runs a travelling circus and charms high society with his calculated eccentricity – Foyle tracks down Vorga crew for brutal interrogation. He rapes, tortures, kills. He's had himself rewired as a cyborg commando with hyper-accelerated reflexes, an infernal machine in human form. Like the Count, who learned the trick in prison, he can see in the dark ...

Frenzied background activity includes war between the solar system's Inner Planets and Outer Satellites. Massive OS nuclear attacks on Earth and Mars provide dazzling special effects for key episodes – one of them a love scene. IP Intelligence, OS spies and the merchant-prince owner of Nomad and Vorga are frantically chasing a superweapon called "PyrE", now in Foyle's hands; plus a personal secret which Foyle himself doesn't know.

Bester's rapid-action plot teems with bizarre characters. A "blind" woman whose eyes, impossibly, function only in the radio/radar bands. A black woman cursed with projective telepathy – everyone can hear her thoughts. A man made lethally radioactive by a nuclear accident – reminding us that Bester once worked in comics, scripting supervillains like Dr Radium. Above all, there's the enigmatic Burning Man who flickers into existence at crisis-points of Foyle's adventures, to distract, save, mystify ... and vanish.

Further eccentrics include the Scientific People whose religion is a crazy patchwork of technical jargon ("Quant Suff!"), and Cellar Christians practising forbidden worship in safe houses guarded by the Lethal Defense Corporation of Sweden. What makes this farrago work is the manic, obsessive tempo of Bester's writing. In one interview, he explained that he took his pace from music: "I say to myself ... I need the attack of Beethoven in the first movement of the Eroica." He also liked to quote the famous Hollywood advice, "Start with an earthquake and build to a climax."

For decades there were two versions of Stars. The UK Tiger! Tiger! appeared first and was edited differently from the US The Stars My Destination. In Britain, Foyle's repeated curse became "Vorga, I kill you deadly", not "filthy". Some typographic gimmicks vanished from the climactic "synaesthesia" sequence, where Foyle's senses become cross-wired and he experiences sound as light, colour as pain, touch as taste ... Alex and Phyllis Eisenstein edited a best-of-both-versions Stars in 1996 – now the official text worldwide.

Back when SF was often pale and antiseptic, Bester stood out for his enthusiastic vision of life's seamy side. He invented flash crowds: "Jack-jaunters" teleporting into disaster areas to rob and loot. Cyberpunk authors took their cue from the sleaziness of his mean streets. Many others were influenced. Michael Moorcock recently told me: "I would never have started reading SF (as such) if I hadn't got hold of a second hand copy of The Stars My Destination in Paris in 1957 or 8. Until then, I hadn't liked anything I'd seen ..."

This one really is a classic, and compulsively readable too.

Like this? Try these!

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1952)

Ben Reich, another towering antihero, schemes to commit murder and get away with it. Even though the police are mind-readers ...

Nova by Samuel R Delany (1968)

An innovative, obsessive quest for treasure at the heart of a star, whose freakish cast is pictured with Bester-like charm and dazzlement.