After a fundamentalist religious upbringing in a small Australian town, I didn't think there was anything new to learn about guilt. That was before I discovered science fiction.
"Why aren't you outside on such a beautiful day?" said my mother accusingly. "Why are you sitting inside with your nose in a book?"
Ah, but what a book!
"In a minute, in a minute ..."
I scrunched down even further into the big armchair and turned the page.
The hero, Gully Foyle, was trapped in the ruins of Old St. Pat's in New York. The explosion that brought down the ancient church had also scrambled his brain. His senses were tangled: "Sound registered as sight, motion registered as sound, colors became pain sensations, touch became taste, and smell became touch." Desperately, he accessed the hidden power of the human brain to teleport — to move by thought alone. In an instant, he appeared at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, an apparition in flaming clothes.
And my mother wanted me to leave this to play cricket?
The book was Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, published in 1957. Bester wrote science fiction in the mode of Rafael Sabatini, author of Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, and of Alexander Dumas, from whom he ... well, let's be kind and say "adapted" this story. It's none other than Dumas' biggie The Count of Monte Cristo, restaged in the far future, when most people have learned how to teleport.
Gulliver Foyle, an uneducated brute, is left to die in a wrecked spaceship. Inspired to greatness by rage, he rescues himself, is put in prison, escapes, finds a treasure, remakes himself as a flamboyant aristocrat and stalks his enemies through a society transformed by the discovery of teleportation into something between Dickens' London and the Borgias' Rome.
I still have that old paperback. The paper is yellowed, the binding cracked, but the wonder is unimpaired. At least once a year, I take it down and, furtively, page through it. Hardly necessary, really, since I know most of it by heart.
Of course I should be reading something bracingly innovative by one of the new young writers. But it consoles me that the best of them, like William Gibson, hold The Stars My Destination in the same esteem as myself.
After Stars, Bester didn't write another novel for almost 20 years. There was more money in television and in editing the travel magazine Holiday. We met once, at a writers conference in Dublin. I shamelessly buttonholed him to sign my copy. "In the Royal Marine Hotel," he wrote firmly on the title page, "waiting for a drink." It was no surprise to hear, when he died in 1987, that he left everything to his bartender. If a cocktail can make one write as he did, I wish I'd thought to ask him what he drank.
My Guilty Pleasure is edited and produced by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.