The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge, the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge, and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.
It is my firm opinion that this is a masterpiece; not just of science fiction, in which field it is regarded with a great deal of critical acclaim and is cited frequently as an inspirational source for some of the biggest names in science fiction, past and present; but of modern literature in general. I find myself wondering why it is that the literary community has just discovered a handful of science fiction and speculative fiction writers but completely missed Alfred Bester? Perhaps it is because he has left us only two novels – but what novels!
Quite a few people whom I interact with regarding science fiction, and whose opinion I respect, have read this novel. By experts in the field it’s considered one of the defining books of science fiction (and no, Margaret Atwood, there are no aliens involved). But I find myself wondering whether my colleagues have truly grasped the nuances that I see. In general they say it’s good, but they don’t seem to see the greatness in it that I do.
Nominally it’s a detective story. Ben Reich is the head of a massive corporation that buys countries in a world a couple of hundred years into our future. He’s a driven man who has determined it is necessary to murder his rival, Craye D’Courtney, whose similar corporate empire is slowly but surely defeating Reich’s. But in this world, peepers (telepaths) are employed in almost every profession in which the ability to read someone’s mind might be useful; including, of course, law enforcement. There hasn’t been a premeditated murder in 70 years because these peeper cops can detect a murder before it happens, and Reich must figure out a way to defeat this system.
If this sounds a bit to you like Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, it did to me too. Except that I looked it up; The Demolished Man was published three years before The Minority Report. My colleague Buck said in his review that this book was “Classic science fiction in the manner of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, with a touch of PKD thrown in for good measure. ” In this I find my first point of disagreement; no, PKD was a touch of Alfred Bester thrown in for good measure; at least in this one particular case. I’m sure Buck meant this as a way to describe the writing style of this novel by using comparisons to authors that readers might be more familiar with, since Bester seems to have fallen through the cracks save for serious critics of sci-fi; but no offense, Buck, because you know I respect you, but I think that was poorly phrased. And incidentally, before Philip K. Dick fans get on my case about how PKD was a total original and any similarity of plotline was a mere coincidence, I will point out that The Demolished Man was the first-ever winner of the Hugo Award, which is the first-ever award specifically for science fiction, and this cannot have escaped the notice of any significant science fiction writer of the time. Not that I think this in any way takes away from PKD as a writer, but let’s give credit where credit is due.
One of the significant plot points of the novel is that Lincoln Powell, the cop in pursuit of Reich, also happens to be the head of the Telepath’s Guild, which is (somewhat necessarily) primarily concerned with its own protection through lifelong loyalty to the Guild, which dictates everything in a telepath’s life from what jobs they accept to whom they can marry. On several occasions it becomes clear that Powell, who is just a New York City detective, has the power to order even Cabinet ministers and diplomats to drop everything to do his will, without much explanation required either, as long as those ministers and diplomats are telepaths.
In this fact is part of the true shining brilliance of this novel that I think that others may have missed. On the surface this presents as a detective story of the future, in which a cop tries very hard to get a bad guy that you know for a fact is a bad guy; one who might be very, very dangerous – perhaps as dangerous as Mussolini or Stalin – if he isn’t stopped now. Bester doesn’t pull any punches and in a style that will remind modern readers of George R.R. Martin he gives you very little to sympathize with in Ben Reich, even though Ben Reich is presented as the protagonist; and yet, you do sympathize with him. Actually, I would even suggest that this novel is perhaps better read as a second person narrative, regarding Powell as the protagonist and Reich, the villain, as merely the viewpoint character.
However, I think some serious questions have to be asked here about how far law enforcement should have the right to go, in terms of the violation of civil liberties, in order to catch a bad guy? Many of Powell’s techniques go right off the board into entrapment and torture to achieve his goal; never mind the violations of privacy implicit in having one’s mind read, and this appears to be sanctioned by the system. (Within its time it’s important to remember that McCarthyism was in full swing in the United States and FBI experiments on unsuspecting citizens using LSD were not that far off.) Once again, just like in The Stars My Destination, it’s apparent that there are no good guys in Bester’s world; we’re all just people being monkeys, with good and evil in all of us. Nobody’s hands are clean, and even choosing not to choose (such in the case of Barbara D’Courtney, daughter of the murdered man, who is thoroughly traumatized) is a choice for survival, not morality. Indeed, I would say that Bester makes the point that even choices that seem moral may be merely justifications for selfish survival. Though seemingly in contradiction, I would also argue that he clearly believes in the existence of the soul and, unlike PKD, in general has an optimistic view of humanity; a point I can’t defend without spoiling the ending, but by all means I invite people to come and debate me in our book club thread if you disagree.
My colleagues Badseedgirl and Charles also reviewed this book. In general they approved of it, and I think that Charles sees some of what I see in it, based on his review. I disagree with his opinion of the slang as “a bump in the road.” I like invented slang; I think it gives future and alternate worlds depth and improves my belief in their reality. And his comment about the Mass Cathexis scene at the end of the book also refers to one of my points as to why this is a truly great novel; not just for science fiction, but for literature in general. Truth, in this book, depends greatly upon your point of view.
Other reviewers have said that they strongly dislike the female characters in this novel; a point which has also been raised for The Stars My Destination. I think this is a valid criticism. I think they’re all wonderfully complex and well-developed people, even when they make decisions that I don’t agree with or that make me uncomfortable. They do seem to defer automatically to any male they come in contact with though (except for the fortune teller, who acquiesces to physical force). This is a flaw in 1950s science fiction and, indeed, any 1950s novel whatsoever. It is perhaps better if you think of Bester’s characters as allegories for elements of human behaviour and psychology, and not as “characters” per se. Still, I can’t disagree with this viewpoint. Do I think this is a deal-breaker that means you shouldn’t read this novel? No more than the treatment of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew should prevent you from reading Shakespeare. (No, he’s not quite The Bard. No one can beat The Bard. But the point is made.) One of the reviewers pointing this out also referred to one of the underlying psychological themes of the novel; Daddy issues. And that’s another theme you can take from it. So it’s very complex!
Lastly, I would like to point out to the small faction who complained that the Hugos had descended into a “liberal’s paradise of artsy SJWs” and thus attempted a takeover in recent years; all I have to say is that the fact that this novel was the first-ever Hugo winner tells me that the Hugos have always been about artistic merit and challenging social issues, not popularity. You are just behind the times.
All in all, quite a hell of a read, one I strongly recommend in general and one I’m going to insist that all my sci-fi fan friends read in particular.