“Vorga, I kill you filthy.”
These menacing words launch the transformation of Gulliver Foyle, common spaceman, into the greatest fictional superhero of all time.
Sherlock Holmes? Superman? Ironman? Pikers compared to Foyle.
His story is so fantastical, it can’t be seen, only read.
When I was a boy, I loved to read science fiction. One day, I was given a thick science fiction anthology that included a novel-length story called, “The Stars My Destination.”
It told the story of Gully Foyle.
Foyle had to overcome the greatest adversary of all — himself.
“The Stars My Destination,” or “Tiger, Tiger” as it is known in Britain and other places, was authored by Alfred Bester in 1956, is called a space opera. It is considered by some critics as the greatest science fiction novel ever written. It is not as famous today because no one has made a movie out of it. It is generally considered unfilmable.
While the book is science fiction, that is really just the setting for the story of the transformation of Gully Foyle.
Foyle’s story opens with these tantalizing words:
“He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.”
The story occurs during a solar system war between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites. Foyle is the only survivor of a space ship attacked, wrecked, and drifting in the vast void of space between Mars and Jupiter.
What kind of man is he?
“Of all brutes in the world he was among the least valuable alive and most likely to survive… He was Gully Foyle, the oiler, wiper, bunkerman; too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love.”
Foyle’s Merchant Marine record describes him:
“A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition. Energizes at minimum. The stereotype Common Man. Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key. Not recommended for promotion. Has reached a dead end.”
In the wrecked ship, Foyle is trapped in a tiny, lightless utility closet, the only airtight space remaining on board. His existence is punctuated by desperate weekly forays into the wreckage to get oxygen tanks and food to keep himself alive. There is no radio and no real hope of rescue. In a solar system at war, he is completely alone, millions of miles from any other person.
Miraculously, one day while Foyle is on one of his desperate forays, a sister ship appears nearby. Foyle is giddy with joy and launches every flare in the wreck to let the other ship, Vorga-T:1339, know that there is a survivor on board.
Vorga pulls alongside, and then, suddenly, inexplicably, departs, leaving Foyle alone again in the wreckage. The key was in the lock, turning.
Spurred by fury and a burning desire for vengeance, Foyle drives himself to devise a way out of his predicament.
Throughout the novel, his desire for vengeance against powerful, implacable forces drive him to improve himself, to become smarter, stronger, faster. He must also become rich, refined, and, finally, wise.
Early on, while unconscious and marooned on an asteroid, his face is tattooed by a space cult with a startling Maori mask. Foyle is wanted by the intelligence services and this makes it too easy for authorities to find him. Foyle finally gets the tattooing removed, but the processes create deep tissue scarring that becomes a visible scarlet mask whenever he allows emotion — anger, hate, passion, shame — to overtake him. This forces him to develop iron self-control, one of the key steps in his transformation.
His motivations change as well. He begins with vengeance, then his motivation slowly transforms from vengeance to ruthless ambition, then to love and jealousy, and finally wisdom, nobility, and charity.
In the end, Foyle finds himself at the center of the fate of the solar system. He offers humanity a choice: A great gift with which to reach the stars or collective suicide via a new, terrible thought weapon.
Foyle concludes with a passionate public speech using the Gutter Tongue. It is the climax of Bester’s story:
“Listen a me, all you! Listen, man! Gonna sermonize, me. Dig this, you!
“You got the most in you, and you use the least. You hear me, you? Got a million in you and spend pennies. Got a genius in you and think crazies. Got a heart in you and feel empties. All a you.
“Take a war to make you spend. Take a jam to make you think. Take a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around lazy, you. Pigs, you! All right, I challenge you, me. Die or live and be great. Blow yourselves gone or come and find me, Gully Foyle, and I make you men. I make you great. I give you the stars.”
Through Foyle, Bester’s point is, of course, that we all want to take the easy way out in life, the lazy way. The easy way leaves us unfulfilled, existing instead of truly living, giving, and contributing — until we are deeply challenged, threatened, motivated.
“You got the most in you, and you use the least. Take a war to make you spend. Take a jam to make you think. Take a challenge to make you great. Rest of the time you sit around lazy, you. Pigs, you! All right, I challenge you, me.”
So, what challenges you? What motivates you? What gets you out of bed, off the sofa, out of the house, to the school, the track, the gym, hiking, biking, running, climbing? What motivates you to accomplish more, bear more fruit, change the world? To strive, as Steve Jobs said, “To make a ding in the universe”?
Do you set goals and keep track until you achieve them? Do you want more for your marriage, your children, your grandchildren, your faith, your country, your future?
Bester uses this seminal novel to both illustrate the natural human condition and to point the way out. Motivation doesn’t have to be a negative emotion like revenge. It can simply start with a desire to be a better husband, wife, parent, or employee. It can be just to prove the naysayers wrong. That’s legitimate motivation, too. Whatever it is though, you need motivation to achieve.
Gully Foyle remains the stereotypical common man, but one who was awakened and challenged by terrible injustice to take action and do more, to become more. What does it take for you?
Note: The novel includes some crude language and situations. It also seems to denigrate religion in several places, although it seems to be redeemed at the end. FYI.