What happens when you revisit the woefully misremembered science fiction of your youth? Joe Howley (Latin teacher) and Johannah King-Slutzky (internet wraith) ask adults to re-read their genre favorites from childhood. For the fourth installment in our series, we talked to bona fide adult Rahawa Haile, an Eritrean-American short story writer with a day job in the title insurance industry. We spoke with Rahawa via Gchat about how Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination sparked her interest in lyrical language, what a book of nihilist space colonialism is really about, and whether an everyman can also be a superman. (The following conversation has been gently massaged for clarity.)
JOHANNAH KING-SLUTZKY: Hi guys!
RAHAWA HAILE: Hi!
JOE HOWLEY: When I asked if you’d be interested in doing this with us, it seemed like you knew pretty quickly that The Stars My Destination was the book you wanted to re-read. When and how did you first encounter it?
RAHAWA: I first came across it in high school via a friend who was into cyberpunk. The language in particular blew me away. There is a horrifying lyricism to most of this text that makes me feel a sort of stimulating repulsion.
“He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.” And then the last 30 pages are like an explosion. (With some problematic philosophizing.)
JOE: It sounds like this aspect of it held up for you, on rereading.
RAHAWA: It did! Bester’s description of synesthesia, his structuring of Foyle’s sensations in hexagons and sinusoidal displeasure, was one of my first encounters with nontraditional text layouts.
JOE: Okay, so I want to ask about something weird here. Did you read for this the same copy you read in high school? I’m asking because Johannah had a “real” copy of the book and I had a crappy Print-On-Demand paperback that’s the only one still “in print” and the creative text layout in mine was terrible, far inferior to what Johannah enjoyed.
RAHAWA: I think my friend lent me his parent’s copy and I received the Vintage copy as a birthday gift in 2009.
JOHANNAH: It’s funny that you were into that text-layout stuff (I’m not sure what the correct term for it is) because I had a lot of trouble getting anything out of it. Its purpose in the story really mystified me.
RAHAWA: Ah. I thought its purpose was to disorient the reader.
JOE: One hallmark of my experience with this book was that I never knew what was on the next page. Weird twist? New SF-y idea? New language? And in that respect it was completely effective.
JOHANNAH: What would you say is the “message” of this book, if there is one?
RAHAWA: I hesitate to say there is any one message about this book. I think much of it is about the ways wounded people are driven (even those who seem to be on top of the world).
JOHANNAH: I don’t know where Joe stands now, but when we met before he seemed to be of the opinion that this was a book about class struggle. I thought there was something more complicated, because Gully isn’t in favor of democracy or rule by proletariat—he wants the freaks to develop their superiority and rule on that basis.
JOE: Yeah, I was really fixated on what Gully says at the very end about how The People should be allowed responsibility and knowledge. The book imagines a world run by corporations and the government entities that exist to serve them (so far so accurate), and then presents this man who is on the one hand an everyman and on the other hand completely unique – and shows how disruptive he is to that order of things where kleptocrats and spies and generals decide the fate of the human race.
RAHAWA: Is there any evidence of a middle class in the book? I don’t recall one.
JOHANNAH: Well…there are a lot of lawyers.
JOE: I take Robin as being of that class.
RAHAWA: Right! Robin!
JOHANNAH: But you’re right that the book focuses almost exclusively on oligarchs/aristocrats and the underclass of jack jaunters and drug addicts and Cellar Christians. (I thought the jack jaunter thing was really cool btw)
JOE: Everything in this book is so cool, it just fizzles with cool things and you never quite know when a cool thing that seems like it’s part of the scenery will become critical to the plot.
RAHAWA: Which did you like the most?
JOE: Oh boy.
RAHAWA: Haha. I know. I love the vulnerability of telesending.
JOE: I liked how jaunting came with these really bleak implications: humans can travel with the power of their minds! So now women must be locked up without windows and everyone is classified according to the range of their jaunte abilities.
RAHAWA: And the disease hounds!
JOE: Oh man, the disease hounds.
JOHANNAH: Wait, what are they again?
JOE: The people who contract diseases for fun, right?
JOHANNAH: They’re like science fiction bug chasers, right?
JOHANNAH: So they’re Munchausen’s lifestyle addicts. Something I’m just realizing is there’s a REALLY strong theme of compulsion in this book. The addicts, Gully who is driven by his hate, Olivia who…acts for no reason except her “blood”…? The Cellar Christians, Robin who compulsively and unintentionally telesends…
RAHAWA: That part was weird. Olivia makes the least sense to me in the book.
JOE: Gully whose face becomes monstrous when he feels emotion strongly.
JOHANNAH: The radioactive guy can’t help radioacting.
JOE: Yeah, what a great counterpart to Robin and telesending.
JOHANNAH: But Robin and he don’t end up together :( Missed opportunity.
OMG WE HAVEN’T TALKED ABOUT JIZ MCQUEEN YET. Jiz. McQueen.
JOE: Jiz McQueen
JOHANNAH: Joe, your wife looked up the etymology of “jizz,” do you remember what she found?
JOE: Yeah, this book was published right on the cusp of the word “jizz” coming into use for ejaculate.
RAHAWA: Poor Jisbella :(
JOE: Probably the last book published in which you could call a character Jiz.
JOHANNAH: But her last name is also McQueen, which makes it so so difficult for me to believe it’s accidental, even though I can’t figure out to what purpose he would intentionally name someone Jiz McQueen knowing its implications.
JOE: I think it’s unintentional. It’s like how my grandfather told me about making a mistake at work and called it a “real boner.”
RAHAWA: Well, Bester chose all the names by looking in an English phone book, right?
JOE: Okay, so were any of these characters likable besides Robin? I was really freaked out by Gully — such a careful mix of someone you root for and a monster you detest.
JOHANNAH: I didn’t root for Gully at all.
RAHAWA: The rape! I felt so bad for Robin.
JOHANNAH: The rape was confusing because it was clearly called rape and was definitely a sign that Gully was not a good guy, but it was also totally elided and felt minimized to me.
RAHAWA: But then she calls it out in the end.
JOE: Very eloquently, I felt.
JOHANNAH: I didn’t think Robin was angry enough at him. It might just be that Bester is not great at describing emotion. He flits from thing to thing too quickly to dwell on Robin’s or anyone else’s pain.
RAHAWA: He does. So much feels whittled down to aggression. But also! How devastating an interaction is:
Robin caught his glance, stopped changing and waited.
He shook his head. “That’s all finished.”
“How interesting. You’ve given up rape?”
JOE: Robin is so impressive because when we leave her, she is a rape victim, and when we see her again, she has as much anger and attitude as Gully. It’s interesting to me that so few characters talk back to Gully (besides her).
JOHANNAH: What?! They all do!
JOE: I mean in terms of calling him on his specific, individual bullshit. Everyone else just talks down to him or at him. I guess Jisbella, maybe.
JOHANNAH: I don’t know, I think all the women talk back to him, and all the men are combating him in less sassy, more active ways.
RAHAWA: Do you think Foyle works as a character? This rage machine with unspeakable power?
JOHANNAH: Hmmmmmm. I asked myself that question a lot while I was reading it and could never decide. Do you think he works?
RAHAWA: I do not. I think he is a vessel for interesting ideas. I wish there was more to him for the first half of the book than vengeance.
JOE: Yes, the vengeance is completely unsympathetic.
JOHANNAH: He’s not motivated ONLY by vengeance, he has some other feelings– he is ashamed to be ugly. He likes sex. He falls in love with Olivia. And he feels embarrassed when he listens to the wrong hypno tape at Fourmyle Circus.
JOE: I thought that was part of the joke. The “wrong hypnotape” thing read like a scripted routine to me.
JOHANNAH: I thought so too at first but he expresses anger even when he’s offstage.
RAHAWA: He’s also smart enough to know his shortcomings.
JOE: What you do you both think about whether Gully is an everyman or a superman? I wonder if his ineptness as a character results in part from trying to make him both.
RAHAWA: Yeah. A Super Everyman. At least up until the end.
JOHANNAH: I wonder if “freaks” are just people with compulsions/uncontrollable feelings? And so unusually strong feelings are what elevate an everyman into a superman.
JOE: Oh yes – the idea of potential, of what anyone can be, of what everyone could be, seems important.
JOHANNAH: On the other hand, the VERY very end of the book seems to contradict the idea that Gully is even remotely an everyman. When he gets hit by PyrE he turns into this synaesthesia wizard (that can’t be normal) and then at the very end, there’s this stuff with Joseph and Moira and prophecy.
What do we make of the synaesthesia wizardry and the prophecy aboard the Nomad? Do they undercut Gully’s everyman status?
RAHAWA: Ahhh. That is a good question. I honestly don’t know! I want to say yes?
JOE: Well, the story of Gully is about how an everyman becomes a superhero, but that doesn’t undermine the idea that anyone has the potential to become more super than they are.
JOHANNAH: Okaaaay but self improvement is not the same thing as magical powers.
JOE: Sure. But Gully explicitly says he can teach other people to space jaunte, and that the Masses have a potential that is untapped as a result of oppressive political structures. It’s not like he is From Krypton or a Rich Sociopathic Heir or even was bombarded by space-rays.
JOHANNAH: No, he’s not from Krypton, but he can fucking time travel you guys.
JOE: But so can anyone, is the implication, I think. That’s what he’s so scared of. He knows humans are bad and he doesn’t want to give them the power to take their badness all over time and space.
JOHANNAH: He’s not worried about teaching people to time travel, he’s only talking about space jauting. I don’t think he can teach other people to time travel.
JOE: No, you’re right.
JOHANNAH: The time travel thing is totally dropped, which makes me want to connect it to this weird hanging thread about the Nomad, but I don’t know if I can make that connection without imagining a nonexistent sequel.
Earlier Joe pointed out that “Moira”—Gully’s Nomad-wife—means “fate” and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the relationship between Joseph (Biblical clairvoyant/dream interpreter) and Moira and time travel since.
RAHAWA: Ooh! Question. Do we think spreading PyrE around the world as a form of deterrence will work?
JOE: I loved that so much.
JOHANNAH: I thought the idea that you have to simply “will” it to go off was dumb, but that it resulted in an “information should be free” narrative was cool.
JOE: The drama about both PyrE and space jaunting made it seem like it was about two different things even down to the final pages.
RAHAWA: It’s true. And I’m still not convinced that Gully expects humanity to do anything but destroy itself. Only that he wants to give the people the choice to do so themselves.
JOE: Because, and get this, a crazy bartender robot tells him it’s the only way. Where does that come from? Who knows!!
RAHAWA: That robot feels like a too-literal translation of deus ex machina/”god from the machine”
JOE: Maybe the robot is the closest we get to hearing from the author directly in the book.
JOHANNAH: The robot reminded me of not just deus ex machina, but also a Greek chorus. (I know almost nothing about Greek choruses.)
JOE: I know when I’m being baited.
JOHANNAH: You caught me. Please take the bait.
JOE: Tragedy is not one of my areas of expertise, but: often, the Greek chorus is cast as some distinct group – “old men of the town,” that kind of thing. But the robot seems to speak with this pure voice out of… nowhere. There’s no way to tell who or what animates it. It certainly does offer an assessment of reality that is lacking in the characters’ arguments with each other.
RAHAWA: What do you both make of a book set in a world of outlawed religions ending on a note of faith?
JOE: There’s a line, when he’s explaining about the outlawing of religion, about how it’s kind of a futile act, since the religious impulse is impossible to suppress. I don’t quite know what exactly we have faith IN, at the end.
JOHANNAH: Right– religion takes place in the same spaces as drug addiction in this novel — it’s a compulsion. I can’t figure out if this book is humanist, and if it’s not, what its other value is instead.
JOE: When you read this in high school, it was the style that blew your mind. when you reread it, did any of these themes about power and human nature and whatnot capture your attention more?
RAHAWA: This time around, I was far more horrified by a world where massive advancements in human potential (jaunting) resulted in (more or less) the imprisonment of women. What about you?
JOE: Hmm, I think the nastiness of the world and the nastiness of the hero. It anticipates the darkness of cyberpunk dystopia, but, you know, before that was a Thing. It all felt so real in its bleakness. You can invent interplanetary travel and discover everyone’s latent psychic powers but the world is still a nasty place where nasty people do nasty things to each other.
Speaking of which, i’ve found my favorite cover-art depiction of Gully (from the Howard Chaykin illustrated edition).
I think we should wra
I think we should rap.
JOHANNAH: Good work.
JOE: Well my name is Gully and I’m here to say I like to rap in a nineties way. Sorry.
JOE: So Rahawa, what is, like, the label on the shelf where you keep this book in your head?
RAHAWA: Formative. It informed my sense of how to make terror and terrifying situations sound mesmerizing.
JOE: Can we link to a recent piece of yours here?
With previous books in this project, I feel like we’ve reached a conclusion about the book, or I’ve been persuaded to hate it less, or something like that, but with this book it feels like we just wandered around in its wild world for a while, which is somehow the only thing you CAN do with it. Johannah, I feel like this is the book we have argued about the most, but I have really enjoyed it.
JOHANNAH: Same! I don’t think we argued about it more than usual though. (There I go again doing it.)
RAHAWA: I had a great time talking with you both about it!
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Oh wait that didn’t work.
RAHAWA: WHO ARE YOU?
JOE: It’s a metaphor.