This book was published in the same year as I was born – 1956. It is the story of the personal journey of an anti-hero – Gully Foyle – as he pursues his revenge against the ship that abandoned him to die in space. During that journey he commits terrible acts, learns new skills and eventually turns from personal retribution to saving humanity.
This book is crammed full of great sci-fi concepts.
- Space travel, of course.
- Jaunting – a limited form of personal teleporting and its impact on society.
- War – between different sections of the colonised solar system.
- Class differences – how these might manifest in the future.
- Powerful corporations – a glimpse of globalisation before we invented the word.
- Skoptsy – the ultimate in stoic escapism.
- Synesthesia – where sensory perceptions become muddled.
- And a bit of telepathy and time travel thrown in.
Overall, a brilliant book – a sci-fi classic. It would be wonderful to see it made into a film.
What I liked about the book
The future world constructed in the story is absolutely convincing. The revolutionary changes brought about by ‘jaunting’ are outlined at the start of the book, using the device of a 7 page prologue. This is a great way of setting the scene, and getting some of the basic explanations over and done before the main action starts.
The first proper chapter opens with the words, “He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.” This is a brilliant beginning to the scene that provides a convincing explanation for the subsequent evil actions of our ‘hero’, Gully Foyle.
There is a huge parade of characters, many very well realised. I loved the ‘gutter language’ of the poorer classes and the contrasting wild excesses of the very rich.
There are sections of the book where the format of the text is manipulated deliberately to achieve various effects. This used to great advantage in chapter 15, to reproduce some of the bizarre and disorienting effects of synesthesia.
The plot twisted and turned – but even the more bizarre events, and the apparent irrelevant deviations from the main plot, were fully explained eventually. The story came to a very satisfactory ending.
What I didn’t like about the book
As often with 1950s sci-fi, the female characters are there mainly to provide a foil to the male action. Jisbella seems to be an exception and gets off to a promising start, but ends up as just another background character. Towards the end, Gully falls passionately in love with the wealthy albino, Olivia. This passion seems unconvincing to me. Neither am I convinced that Olivia could have behaved as she did under the nose of her possessive father.
Another aspect that makes me somewhat uncomfortable is that Gully’s growing conscience, and his subsequent actions, seem to be attributed to his leaving his humble origins behind, acquiring an education and becoming initiated into the ways of the upper classes. As he abandons his ‘gutter tongue’ and mannerisms, he becomes more humane, develops a conscience and acquires moral values. Nowadays this seems a quaintly old-fashioned notion – as we would no longer consider improving education or prosperity to correlate with increasing humanity.