A novel by Alfred Bester
Latest publication: 1996, paperback
, 240 pages, by Vintage Books USA
Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.
In the future, a few centuries from now. Ben Reich is the head honcho of Monarch Enterprises, a vast conglomerate controlling various venues from transportation to advanced research. Monarch is engaged in a power struggle with the D'Courtney Cartel, another conglomerate which is slowly but steadily chipping away at Monarch's market share. Reich throws everything to the game and suggests a merger between the two companies. But D'Courtney refuses, fueling Reich's anger. He is in a dead end: he must remove Cray D'Courtney out of the picture, permanently.
Reich digs up four detailed plans, written by one of his ancestors, to carry out a murder and get away with it. There is one problem, one his forebearers could not predict: thanks to the next phase in human evolution, there are thousands of telepaths, "peeps", in the world. How do you murder someone and get away with it, when anyone can see your intentions and guilt?
What's worse for Reich, all telepaths have organized themselves into the Esper Guild (Extrasensory Perception), which enforces a strict rule of conduct on all peeps, ensuring that they work for the good of all mankind. With the Guild's help, no premeditated murder has been committed in over seventy years. Should anyone manage to take another's life, they will face Demolition - their psyche will be purged and replaced.
Following "the ABC of conflict with society", the audacious, brave and confident Reich pours all of his abilities and means to take D'Courtney's life. An equal mastermind, Lincoln Powell, a prefect and first class telepath of the police department, is on the case to outwit him. Reich has on his side "the killer instinct", ruthless cunning, and massive economical resources. Powell has his telepathic abilities, the support of the telepath community and the law enforcement - bound by the prosecution computer Old Mose, which will evaluate all cases truly objectively and with sterling logic. The two forces clash in a fascinating and fast-paced detective story with a good deal of science fiction thrown into the mixture.
The Demolished Man is timeless. The story concentrates on the game between Powell and Reich, and many components of 1950's science fiction, like computers and space travel, are not overplayed. This means that the story has no anachronisms, and creates a sensible futuristic society. For all intents and purposes, the book could have been written five, not fifty years ago.
The integral component in The Demolished Man is telepathy. Bester goes all the way to build a society which has adapted to the new asset the peeps are, utilising their unique ability. Telepaths work, among others, as personnel managers, guards, diplomats, psychiatrists, and policemen.
This gives the novel depth without shoving it down the reader's throat. The only thing explained in a contrived manner is the big twist, the crux of the plot, but a careful reader will already know what will be told and will only receive confirmation to his beliefs. Bester does his best to drop hints all the way from the beginning to create those oh so familiar feelings of "I knew it!" and "I should have known!"
The sociological aspect is not all there is to it in The Demolished Man: in a way it is also a very psychological novel. Bester shows off his Freudian knowledge by using the theories of the relationship between the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious, and the concepts of the superego and the id. He also uses instincts to explain human behaviour, for instance one of the character has their "life and death instincts defused". It makes for an interesting experience for anyone familiar with Freud's thoughts, but the ones unaware will be more bewildered than anything.
Bester uses more conventional means to describe emotion. Short, declarative sentences, some of them composed of only one word, and careful use of exclamation marks make the nightmares Ben Reich is suffering from all the more frightening. The climax of the story uses this to create a very, very striking scene of madness and desperation.
Bester's command of the English language is also evident in little pieces of slang, like the ever-present verb "jet" which can mean anything from "get" to "go". They are never explained outright, but once the context is there, the reader will never notice them again. Not to mention the famous jingle quoted on the top of this writeup, Tenser, Said the Tensor.
Another not so orthodox method is how the author describes interaction between telepaths. A text read by a mundane can only do so much, but Bester uses the literary medium as much as possible to relate the general idea. He uses typographical tricks usually used in poems to depict the flow of thought patterns between peeps. Included are also hectic parts about diving into the subconscious mind of a person - a very vexing and dangerous task.
All of these tricks are all fine and well, yes, but you can not write a story without a plot to use them in. The Demolished Man is 240 pages, or roughly 65,000 words long. That in retrospect feels like too small a number, as in those 240 pages an entire world is crafted. Bester doesn't bother with explaining the details, the reader is expected to figure it all out as he goes.
On the other hand, the story progresses at a breakneck pace. The reviewer is a pretty quick reader, and gobbled up the novel in one session of five hours. There are a few holes or inconsistencies here and there, but the reviewer didn't pick them up until the second reading. At the end of the day, the story makes perfect sense, but the overall feeling is tarnished by a few things that Bester pulls out of nowhere as the end closes in. Something reeks of a rushed job.
From a frame of reference of 1951, The Demolished Man is an exciting novel with many new things to offer to the genre, and deserves the first Hugo Award ever. From a frame of reference of 2004, it is a classic which has significantly influenced the genre. A good example of this are the multiple references to it in the TV show Babylon 5. It's required reading for anyone interested in the telepath theme in scifi, and highly recommended to fans of the genre - and just about anyone looking for a quick shot of literary goodness.
The rest of this writeup will include spoilers. Read on at your own peril.
The novel raises several interesting questions, like a book of its calibre should.
The Esper Guild: The story's view on the Esper Guild seems to be very optimistic. On the other hand, no outside control is told of. The League that wants to use the Guild's powers for more nefarious causes is still on the loose, despite Tate being uncovered, and the Guild has the potential of turning into the very thing shown as the Psi Corps in Babylon 5: a tyrannical, malevolent, harmful organization with far too much power in its hands. The Guild's integrity lays in the people running it, not the inherent system.
The difference between planning a crime and doing it: Bester is unclear as to what happens to people when they are caught planning a crime. Are they taken to Kingston Hospital and re-educated somehow? From an ethical standpoint, is it right to convict and "treat" people for something they haven't done yet? A similar point is raised by Philip K. Dick in his short story Minority Report.
The Constitution does appear to protect the mundanes significantly from the peeps, so it could be that any peep detecting a criminal intent would notify the authorities, and the police would capture the assailant red-handed, but before he can do any harm. This does present a case of a thought crime of sorts, and brings out the point that the Espers would be a terrifying tool in the hands of a Big Brother.
Powell says in the end of the book:
"No. I mean something else. Three or four hundred years ago, cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them. Capital punishment, they called it." (...) "But it doesn't make sense. If a man's got the talent and guts to buck society, he's obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you've got left are the sheep."
Is the demolition really that different from capital punishment? With the possible advent of advanced artificial intelligence, maybe instead of the sanctity of life, we should honour the sanctity of personality. Our personality is our emotions, memories and knowledge - what makes us us.
In the novel it's also implied that traits like "guts" and "talent" are not acquired characteristics, a part of the personality that is demolished, but inherited traits. Wipe the slate clean, and the new personality will have the same positive capabilities, but it will use them in a different way. Is a person really stuck with the spiritual capabilities their genes have bestowed on them, or can a normal, healthy person become with practice or experience as talented and gutsy as Ben Reich?
The references to "above average" and "sheep" are also questionable, but this and the belief in genetical influence on personality are probably symptoms of the era the story was wrote in than anything else. It also brings up a new facet of Powell's personality - his being esper may have made him elitistic and disdainful of the "deaf-mutes".
* belgand says re The Demolished Man : a hardbound edition was also made available in 1996 and printed by Vintage Books. I pruchased it through the Science Fiction Book Club, but it makes no statement as to being a club edition. This is, however, a distinct possibility. Still, it was more or less the same price as the TPB.