The Psychologist in SF: Part Four

Two: More Bester! (Besterer?) / The Stars My Destination

In The Stars My Destination, Bester examines the consequences of applying a lack of intelligence to a driving hatred in a world full of back-doors toward self-betterment. Gully Foyle, a sub-human everyman, is absolutely possessed by his desire to murder the Vorga, a vessel which passed him by without offering aid when he was marooned on his own ship, the Nomad. In a shining example of science fiction at its best, we are introduced to a world where people can “jaunte,” a form of teleportation; as bester is wont to do, he makes this development the crux of culture, setting up a complex class system based around the how far a person can jaunte in one jump. He then allows us to follow one wily psychopath with no end of resourcefulness and manic drive as he navigates this world, attempting to do something literally impossible – namely, to kill a spaceship. Foyle has to worm his way into the strangest and most dynamic areas of his world in order to get what he wants.

Ahem. Sound familiar?

To my recollection, there are no actual psychologists in this book. However, there are a few very interesting surrogates. Robin Wednesbury is an occupational therapist of sorts, helping those who can’t jaunte for various reasons to learn or relearn the skill. Foyle takes advantage of her giving nature throughout the book, in yet another example of therapist-as-ragdoll. But I don’t think Bester meant this to reflect negatively on Wednesbury; after all, she sticks with Foyle through all of his questionable deeds, eventually helping him to become a sort of universal savior. It’s not as subtle and obviously Taoist as George Orr in LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven,” but there’s a similar quality here, one that seems to provide a counterpoint to the therapist character in The Demolished Man: Wednesbury is resigned to being part of Foyle’s story while it is taking place, but she is persistent, consistent, and, when the time comes, ready to help him make the most of the path of self-actualization he’s already been on. In “Lathe,” the Taoist patient saves the world by remaining passive but present in opposition to the manic urges of his Psychiatrist. In SMD, Wednesbury helps Foyle save the world by sticking around, letting him play out his manic urges, but guiding him, trusting that they will end in nobler ones.

And then there are the Scientific People. One of the most visually evocative passages in any book I can recall, Foyle’s terrifying encounter with these maladapted “savages” is rife with sociological and psychological implications. The descendents of a group of scientists who crashed into an asteroid (or something like that), these primitive people have formed an entire culture – a ritualistic culture reminiscent of cargo cults in some respects – around the vestiges of the “science” left for them to find. They perform elaborate ceremonies involving men on stilts, wearing medical scrubs embroidered with the patterns of human biological systems; readings from scientific reports as if from sacred texts; and tattooing the names of everyone – visitors included – into their foreheads in a horrific mockery of thorough taxonomy. I am less interested in attempting to parse the implications here than I am in simply presenting them for review in relation to the rest of my points. Tackling the scientific people in any meaningful way would be (could be?) a whole piece.

One very interesting thing comes of Foyle’s encounter, however. Having been swept up into their society and married to one of their women, Foyle is forcibly tattooed with his “name,” actually the name of his ship: Nomad. Shortly after his escape, he has the tattoo removed. The procedure is effective, except for one thing: when he becomes overly emotional, particularly overly angry, his tattoo becomes visible, presumably standing out in white as he turns red. Foyle’s pursuers are looking for a man with a facial tattoo. If he stays calm, this can be a great advantage, as tattoo removal is rare; however, if he allows his emotions to overtake him, he will give himself away. At this point in the story, his journey is just beginning; he is driven and resourceful but emotionally and mentally underdeveloped. His rage still drives him. In order for him to succeed at infiltrating society – both high and low – to reach his goal, he would have inevitably been faced with the need to restrain himself anyhow. This event serves as a kind of “divine behaviorist intervention,” the accidental or serendipitous application, by no one and nothing other than the twists of fate that constitute Foyle’s life, of a sort of conditioning technique that does, eventually, prove effective.

This is really the heart of Bester’s approach to psychology. Though he may include a professional here and there, the real psychologist in Bester’s best works in the world. Not only does our relationship with our environment contribute to our psychological issues, it can also work with us to solve them. In these, his most transcendent moments, Bester proves himself to be more nuanced in his psychology. Elements of environmental and social psychology crop up, working in tandem with behaviorist and humanist ideas. Bester, in his later work especially, is more than just a cheerleader for the rather limited psychodynamic notions of the time. He is a true eclectic – someone who understands that psychology is only the study of the human experience, and not the thing itself – not a solution to a problem, but a sketch of a situation, in which possibility is always present.

Next and last in this series: The Psychologist in PKD (though it may be a while until I can take this on)

Also: Comments are welcome, so feel free to jump in. Science fiction is a dialogue (so is psychology) – embrace it!

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2 Responses to “The Psychologist in SF: Part Four”

  1. I appreciate the sociological perspectives you bring to your analyses of literature. The dynamics between a person, his drives, and his social environment are worthy of study — and the best psychoanalytical/psychological perspectives recognize this. It’s been too long since I’ve read Bester to comment cogently on “The Stars My Destination,” but Bester’s use of social hierarchy is especially important, as you noted. Great post.

    • Thanks a lot for your feedback. I think I should go back and explore the sociology in Bester more clearly – I veered into it without identifying it a number of times.

      I’m working on reading your thesis – I’m really enjoying it so far. I’m noticing a lot of similar themes cropping up, but in very different contexts; part of what’s so cool about PKD scholarship (amateur or otherwise) is the way each approach captures an aspect of the work. I’m liking your take on the philosophy, the political theory, and the psychology/sociology (using Freud well – a true accomplishment!). I’ll leave some feedback as I continue.

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