Tiger Tiger by Alfred Bester

6/10 Tiger Tiger is a classic in many senses, albeit one with a pretty glaring flaw.

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.

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Tiger Tiger reader reviews

from Brasil

Interesting the way he created to learn: going from a mediocre mechanic to a star of the show business.

from Australia

Despite the overt sexism, I still read Tiger/Tiger every year or so.

from United States

One of my earlier Sci-Fi reads, and still one of my favorites. Even beyond the time/era when the book was written, the provocative nature of this book form revenge, single-mindedness, as well as the social commentary of the indulgent nature of society, the exhibitionism of the rich, and the mindlessness of government...

from Italy

I really enjoyed this novel, It's a precursor of cyberpunk, something you don't expect from a 50's book.

from Germany

One of the best SciFi books ever. I am not sure if I share the main idea of the book, but still the book is extremely solid.

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.

8.7/10 from 7 reviews

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