Tiger Tiger by Alfred Bester
Tiger Tiger, first published in the United States in 1956 under the rather more impressive title "The Stars My Destination" is one of the two best known works of science fiction writer Alfred Bester. Bester is a name which likely most people will first associate with the slimy Psi Cop from the Babylon 5 TV series, who was in fact named after the author (since Bester's principle works both dealt with telepathy).
Though Bester the author - unlike his namesake - does not (I assume) have telepathic powers, I can say that his book has left a really strong impression in my brain, even though it has been a few months since I read it. Hopefully this isn't because Bester has brainwashed me into a position where I go paralyzed if I try to criticize his work, since while many of the glaring images of this book in my subconscious are very positive, some most definitely are not.
To begin with the good stuff, I have to say that the book is father, the book is mother, mmm, that is I have to say that the writing style is truly exceptional with a setting to match. Bester writes with a sharp, expansive and poetic flare that perfectly fits the colourful 24th century world he is depicting and the large scale events, from truly decadent cocktail parties spanning the globe, to space battles, chases around the surface of mars or daring prison escapes. Indeed, for a book written in the 1950's, long before the advent of the blockbuster film, it's really quite surprising how fast paced and downright pyrotechnic the novel is.
The depth of fantastic ideas and colourful settings is breath-taking; indeed often Bester will casually toss off in one chapter a concept that might have a whole book written about it. Early on for example we are introduced to a ritualistic society living in a network of crashed spaceships dug into an asteroid that have turned scientific doctrine into a religion, interpreting "natural selection" to mean a man selects his wife and talking of "Holy Darwin". Later on we are rushed past the idea of cybernetic modifications to the human body that cause a person to move so quickly time appears to slow down around them.
These big sci-fi concepts come thick and fast right up to the last chapter, yet nowhere does the book just feel like just a list of ideas or that it doesn't explore its setting and central themes in sufficient depth.
One of the major parts of the plot for instance is the idea of "jaunting", that through memorizing a starting point and location and giving a mental command, people can teleport at will (though only within a thousand miles). Bester fully explores this idea and many of its social implications, thus having a society where prisons must be cloaked in absolute darkness or where the rich show their power by use of past forms of transport instead of resorting to jaunting.
Nowhere does Bester's setting feel rushed or unexplored, and in such a quick, pacey novel that is a major achievement.
Bester's plot and characters are also extremely compelling. The plot centres on Gulliver Foyle who, after living for 170 days on a derelict and nearly airless spaceship, sees the space liner Vorga. Though he signals frantically and even burns some of his precious remaining fuel, Vorga passes on leaving Foyle to die. The plot then centres on Foyle's attempts to seek revenge on Vorga for abandoning him and finding and punishing whoever gave the order to let him die.
In some ways then Tiger Tiger plays out like The Count of Monte Cristo in space. Foyle is willing to stop at nothing for revenge, acquire whatever he needs from education and wealth to explosives and weapons, and to sacrifice anything and anyone along the way. This makes Foyle something of an amoral protagonist, though at various points I still found myself gaining a respect for him, particularly since those who he often confronts, such as the powerful mega corporations or a government who just seeks weapons to win their on-going war are hardly deserving causes either. Though his methods are often questionable, Foyle is also incredibly entertaining in his pure cynicism and abrupt bucking of a system which he has been at the bottom of all of his life.
Now, however, is where we get on to the really problematic aspects of Bester's work, since even for an author of the 1950's I have to say Bester has a serious problem with female characters.
Had this problem simply been (as many authors of the period did) a tendency to only have his female character fulfil rolls as decorative love interest, background home items or rescue bait I could simply accept that like his use of the word "negro" Bester was simply a child of his time. The problem however is that Bester's female characters and his treatment of them seriously messes up the overall plot and flow of the novel.
This first occurs when Foyle reveals to Robin Wednesberry - a female jaunt instructor - that he has information that her family are on the other side in the war and will blackmail her with it. Such a thing is pretty in character for Foyle and when I first read the book I just picked this up as more of Foyle's Monte Cristo vengeance, however that scene ends with Foyle picking up Robin and throwing her onto a couch. When we meet Robin later, she straight out accuses Foyle of raping her yet at the same time seems fascinated and in love with him in a kiss kiss, slap slap, "Oh you awful! wonderful man!" sort of fashion. Yes, you can all join me in the Yuck! chorus now.
I might be able to forgive even this as both a symptom of the 1950's mentality, and the fact that Foyle is after all hardly supposed to be a virtuous person (he does many more questionable things too). However it shows the fundamental problem with female characters in the book. Despite elsewhere having Foyle as an absolute psychopath bent on vengeance above all else, Foyle often turns aside from his course at the sight of a pretty girl, to the point that for the last third of the novel Foyle's vengeance motive almost falls off the map in favour of him trying to woo the daughter of a hyper rich industrialist. It also does not help that even when Bester deliberately attempts to write a tough, competent female character he fails dismally. Jisbella McQueen is supposed to be an accomplished thief who explains that due to jaunting meaning that privacy is now at a premium, Victorian segregation of women in jaunt proof rooms has re-emerged in society, so McQueen decided to buck the trend by becoming a criminal.
This super tough thief however proves always to be less than competent and for the last half of the novel is palmed off to become the arm candy of one of the male cast, the same fate of every other named woman in the book, as well.
I could gloss over sexist assumptions and stereotypes, and maybe even minimizing rape (though swallowing that one is a struggle), from a book that is now nearly 60 years old. However having the vital course of his plot and principle character bent out of shape just because they ran into people with two X chromosomes was extremely disappointing, and is likely why my favourite parts of the novel all tend to occur nearer the start. In some ways I wish Bester had done as Asimov, Clarke and many other science fiction writers of the same period did and simply left female characters and romance (which even today still unfortunately often mean the same thing) out of the book entirely, since it likely would've made for a better written story over all despite such limitations.
I will however give Bester much credit for the book's ending. Bester not only explains and clarifies many of the more mysterious elements and wraps things up very neatly, but he manages to achieve something I've rarely seen. He leaves the world of Tiger Tiger and the character of Gulliver Foyle in an open ended choice which is not resolved, but one which is such a profoundly awesome crescendo and such a beautifully high point, both poetically and thematically that it does not feel the least unsatisfying.
Tiger Tiger is a classic in many senses, albeit one with a pretty glaring flaw. All in all I do have to say that the good aspects, the far flung ideas, fast pace, deeply colourful setting, vivid writing style and ultimate conclusion do tip the scales favourably in the end, even if only just (hence my rating).
Still, despite some really huge problems I do think I would recommend the book over all.
This Tiger Tiger book review was written by Dark
Have you read Tiger Tiger?
We've found that while readers like to know what we think of a book they find additional reader reviews a massive help in deciding if it is the right book for them. So if you have a spare moment, please tell us your thoughts by writing a reader's review. Thank you.
Tiger Tiger reader reviews
Randy from US
Tiger Tiger was the best sci-fi book of the literal dozens I have enjoyed. Years ago I stopped reading for pure enjoyment this novel has rekindled my early adolescent love for mental escape and sane mind expansion sans the ever present risk of chemical overload.
8/10 from 2 reviews
Write a reader review
Thank you for taking the time to write a review on this book, it really makes a difference and helps readers to find their perfect book.
More recommended reading in this genre
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn't expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that's seen better days, offers her everything she co...
Marjorie B Kellogg
Set in the future on a distant world, Lear’s Daughters tackles the issues of global warming, pollution, exploitation of resources, and disastrous climate change. Long...
Iain M Banks
It begins in the realm of the Real, where matter still matters. It begins with a murder. And it will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself. Lededje Y&...
The burgeoning new economies in near-Earth space are fuelled by a steady stream of comets, steered back home by huge nuclear-powered mining ships like Bella Lind’s Ro...
The Naked God
Peter F Hamilton
The Confederation is starting to collapse politically and economically, allowing the 'possessed' to infiltrate more worlds. Quinn Dexter is loose on Earth, destroyi...
The very far future: The Galaxy is a drifting wreck of black holes, neutron stars, chill white dwarfs. The age of star formation is long past. Yet there is life here, feedi...
When Streaker - the first starship designed and crewed by dolphins - discovers a derelict ancient armada with evidence of the first sentient species ever, she sets off a wa...
James SA Corey
Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach. Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making r...
An Ancient Peace
The centuries-long war between the Confederation and The Others, a group of violent alien species, is over. Intergalactic peace is finally restored. Torin Kerr and her crew...
During all recorded history, the Moon has hovered above our heads, a timeless symbol for lovers' ecstasy. Goddesses & Gibson Girls have tripped the light fantastic ...
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, ...
James SA Corey
On Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier. On Earth, a high-level politician struggl...
The Uplift War
As galactic armadas clash in quest of the ancient fleet of the Progenitors, a brutal alien race seizes the dying planet of Garth. The various uplifted inhabitants must batt...
Old Man's War
John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interste...
The Dreaming Void
Peter F Hamilton
The year is 3589, fifteen hundred years after Commonwealth forces barely staved off human extinction in a war against the alien Prime. Now an even greater danger has surfac...
Looking for more suggestions? Try these pages:
Books of the Month
A selection of books - old and new alike - that were a joy to read.
Edinburgh, 1874. On the coldest night the world has ever seen, Little Jack is born with a frozen heart and immediately undergoes a life-saving operation. But Dr Madeleine is no conventional medic and surgically implants a cuckoo-clock into his chest. Little Jack grows up different to other children: every day begins with a daily wind-up. At scho...
The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow's Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow...
A Tale of Time City
Diana Wynne Jones
When Vivian is evacuated from London in 1939, she expects to be staying in the countryside. Instead, she is whisked away to Time City – a place that exists outside ti...
The Guns of Empire
As the roar of the guns subsides and the smoke of battle clears, the country of Vordan is offered a fragile peace... After their shattering defeats at the hands of brillian...
At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth....
Events are coming to a climax in the Banished Lands, as the war reaches new heights. King Nathair has taken control of the fortress at Drassil and three of the Seven Treasu...
For Kivrin Engle, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the four...