The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man Cover

The Demolished Man: Hard-Boiled Diamond

Scott Laz

Of the Grand Master authors, Alfred Bester may be the one with the shortest science fiction bibliography, encompassing only part of his writing career, which also included non-genre writing, radio and TV scripting (Tom Corbett: Space Cadet), comics (most notably Golden Age Green Lantern), magazine editing and book reviewing. He published a few stories between 1939 and 1942, made a semi-successful return to the field in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but is remembered today almost entirely for two novels and not much more than a dozen stories published during the 1950s, comprising one of the most influential and well-regarded oeuvres in the field. His ‘50s writings have been seen as the bridge between the ‘40s Campbellian Golden Age and the more literate, experimental and socially conscious New Wave of the ‘60s, as well as a precursor of the ‘80s cyberpunk movement. The stories have been collected in Virtual Unrealities, while the novels are The Stars My Destination (1957) and The Demolished Man (1953, first serialized in Galaxy in 1952), which won the first Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953.

Has any other author made such a large impact with so few stories? In the context of the time, it’s easy to see why The Demolished Man made such a strong impression. By the early ‘50s, newer writers (and some older ones) were looking to break with the traditions established by John W. Campbell’s Astounding during the ‘40s. Bester was among the authors who took advantage of the rise of F&SF and Galaxy, with their commitment to a more expansive view of what SF could be, to begin publishing stories that looked more towards psychology and sociology for inspiration, while Campbell continued to stress “hard science” and engineering. Along with this shift came an emphasis on more adult characterization within science fiction, openness to more “literary” approaches to the writing of SF, and an increasing appearance of social criticism and satire. These new trends crystallized in The Demolished Man, paving the way for writers like Dick, Sheckley, and eventually Delany and Gibson.

The Demolished Man is set at the beginning of the 24th century. Space flight is routine, and people live on several planets and moons throughout the solar system. Unlike his Golden Age forbears, Bester is uninterested in the nuts and bolts of how this is accomplished. There are no expositional pauses interrupting the breakneck pace of the novel. People travel between worlds as casually as we might catch a flight between cities. Instead of explaining this world, Bester immerses us in it. Within that framework, it would make no more sense to describe aspects not directly relevant to the story than for a writer mentioning a character’s trip downtown to describe how a car works, or how and when the transportation system was built. Instead, we get flashes of description, and the characters’ impressions, allowing us to slowly build the world in our minds:

“He passed through the steel portals of headquarters and stood for a moment on the steps gazing at the rain-swept streets… at the amusement center across the square, block after block blazing under a single mutual transparent dome…  at the open shops lining the upper footways, all bustle and brilliance as the city’s night shopping began… the towering office buildings in the background great two-hundred story cubes… the lace tracery of skyways linking them together… the twinkling running lights of Jumpers bobbing up and down like a plague of crimson-eyed grasshoppers in a field…”

The story is fairly simple on the surface, and can be described as a science fiction murder mystery, in a future where crime is almost unheard of since the police are able to employ mind-reading “peepers” to prevent crimes before they happen, or ferret out actual criminals. Ben Reich, one of the most powerful industrialists in the solar system, determines to murder a rival who threatens his economic ascension, arrogantly plotting the crime (with the help of his Esper psychoanalyst) in a way that, even if the police can discover his role, they will be unable to prove. The amoral Reich is able to take advantage of the Esper Guild’s ethical code, which they have adopted in order to police themselves, while helping the rest of humanity in various capacities (for instance, as counselors and investigators), only intruding onto the thoughts of others under clearly specified circumstances, or with permission. Their goal is to train ever more people to become Espers, with the belief that humanity will eventually reach a new stage of harmonious coexistence once everyone achieves Esper powers. From their point of view, a person like Reich is especially dangerous to their cause, as they recognize that he is someone who has the potential to derail their plans through his own individual will to power. Despite being witnessed by the victim’s daughter, the murder plan is carried out, and Esper Detective Lincoln Powell quickly realizes that Reich is the murderer. The suspense, then, is not related to figuring out who the killer is, but rather derives from the cat-and-mouse game between Reich and Powell, as each tries to stay a step ahead of the other as Powell pieces together Reich’s plan in a search for evidence, and Reich looks for ways to throw him off the track or destroy the evidence before Powell can get to it. And, while we know who the murderer is from the start, it turns out that there is an aspect to the crime that is hidden even from Reich himself…

Without giving away the ending, this last mystery is related to Reich’s subconscious motivations. If there is an aspect to The Demolished Man that seems dated, it is the importance of Freudian psychology within the story. The rise of psychology as a science seemed to lead many SF writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s to extrapolate a future in which psychological science becomes similar to physical science in its ability to precisely understand, predict, and manipulate the human mind. The psychological experts in these stories can often understand individual motivations for people’s actions in a way that seems overly simplistic to modern readers. Much more interesting is Bester’s use of ESP in the story, and the way it is incorporated into the society portrayed in the novel. Some of the best passages are those that describe the thought processes of the “peepers.” In these sections, Bester experiments with typographical layout in order to better represent the difference between telepathic and verbal communication, and uses language that evokes the hyper-intensity of the mind-reading process:

“Here were the somatic messages that fed the cauldron; cell reactions by the incredible billion, organic cries, the muted drone of muscletone, sensory sub-currents, blood-flow, the wavering superheterodyne of blood pH… all whirling and churning in the balancing pattern that formed the girl’s psyche. The never-ending make-and-break of synapses contributed to a crackling hail of complex rhythms. Packed in the changing interstices were broken images, half-symbols, partial references… The ionized nuclei of thought.”

This and the previous quote are good examples of Bester’s prose, which has been well-described as “crystalline” or “sharp.” The novel is characterized by very short, often fragmentary sentences or clauses. The effect is created of a relentless pace, with no wasted words. The reader is propelled forward obsessively, similarly to the characters of Reich and Powell, who cannot stop moving until they reach a resolution… To consider how this style might have seemed liberating or revelatory to readers at the time, read a chapter of The Demolished Man after a Heinlein or Asimov story from the ‘40s. It’s not that subsequent writers would imitate Bester’s hard-boiled style (though you might see Neuromancer in a new light after reading this novel), but rather that its success helped open up possibilities for SF writers to develop writing styles and tackle themes and types of stories that may not have seemed possible before.

I’ve tried to make a case in this review for Bester’s importance in the history of SF, but a review is supposed to help people decide whether they want to read a book. Even if you’re not interested in the historical context at all, The Demolished Man remains a startlingly modern, entertaining novel. It won’t seem as original to modern readers as it did sixty (!) years ago, of course, because its influence has been incorporated into countless subsequent works of science fiction, but Bester’s wonderful prose and skillful plotting still shines through, despite the outdated psychological aspects (admittedly used in an ingenious way) and some casual ‘50s sexism (why did mid-20th century male writers predict future societies that would be increasingly liberal in regard to sexuality, but pretty much completely miss out on the occupational and social gains that women would make?). For younger readers or those who haven’t read much older SF, I would think that the works of Alfred Bester would be an excellent place to start…