Telepaths, murder and typographical tricks: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man was first published in 1953 and won the first ever Hugo award for best novel. I first read it as a teenager, but haven’t read it for a long time, perhaps twenty years. It’s a great idea book, but it’s also tense all the way through and none of the characters are people I care to spend time with.

Sometimes I read old books and they feel clunky, but I can enjoy them despite that. This isn’t one of those. This is a surprisingly modern-feeling novel, though of course very short. It reads like cyberpunk—apart from the cyber bit. It has everything I don’t like about cyberpunk, unpleasant immoral characters, bribery, an underworld, a fast pace, lots of glitz, a metropolitan feel, chases, and a noir narrative voice that doesn’t want you to get too close. This is a good book, certainly a classic, certainly influential, but I don’t warm to it. There are excellent reasons for reading it, and if you like William Gibson you might well like this too, but my favourite Bester will always be his short stories.

This is a future world where humanity is inhabiting three planets and three moons—and a rich man’s clock gives him the time on the meridian of all six of them, but he has to do sums to know what time it is in New York where he happens to be. This is a future that’s had some considerable technological advances on 1953, not just in one area but in many. It’s a New York that has different classes, and people of both genders, though they all seem to be white. Most of the story takes place in New York, with one excursion to a space habitat.

Society is full of Espers, called “peepers”—telepaths. Not even your thoughts are private, and there’s not much significant crime, though there’s still an underworld. We’re told there hasn’t been a premeditated murder in seventy years, because some peeper would see the intent and prevent the crime. The Espers are organized into a Guild with an Oath, they’re very moral, but they’re also trying eugenic breeding to produce more Espers with a goal of a totally telepathic world. They require intermarriage and children, they classify themselves into rigid classes, and they earn a lot seeing through people’s secrets. Their punishment for breaking their oath is total ostracisation from Esper society—and we see poor ostracized Jerry Church pressing up against the outside of a telepath party just to be able to overhear mental communication.

Bester describes the mental communication as making patterns impossible in speech, and represents this with typographical trickery. There’s quite a lot of “@kins” and “Weyg&” kind of thing, which must have seemed very innovative in 1953, which is sufficiently ahead of 133tspeak that Bester can reasonably be considered to have either predicted or invented it. It seems a little precious now. The patterns made by telepathy are also slightly too clever for my tastes—an eye in a stein, meaning Einstein. I generally like them better when he describes them than when he attempts to convey them on the page. However, this was clearly the precedent for Aristoi. Generally, the telepathic communications are clear and well conveyed. Bester actually does succeed in making the Espers seem as if they have another channel of communication that isn’t just silent speech—except when it is.

There’s a computer justice system which can analyse very complex things, but on punchcards. There’s a brief interlude among the decadent rich. I am unaware of decadent rich people like this, but since they appear here and in Sayers Murder Must Advertise and I believe that if two people satirise what is recognisably the same thing they’re probably working from a common original. We see these decadent rich and the lowlives at the fortune tellers and the pawn shop, and much more unusually, the middle classes in the person of the girl who writes the earworm and the scientist who invents the rhodopsin capsule and others of Reich’s subordinates.

The plot concerns a murder, first finding a way to commit it and then finding a way to prove the murderer did it. A murder mystery in a science fiction society isn’t unusual now, but it was quite innovative in 1953. We begin in Reich’s point of view as he plans the murder, finding ways to get around telepathic surveillance with an earworm, and then afterwards we switch to Lincoln Powell, Esper 1st, detective.

The best and the worst things about the book are closely allied. The whole thing is as Freudian as The Last Battle is Christian, and it causes the same kind of issues. First it gives it some extra and interesting depth. We begin with a nightmare, and the absolutely best part of the book is another long nightmare towards the end which does the kind of sense-of-wonder things than only SF can do. But the adherence to the Freudian view of people also limits it unrealistically. It’s especially a problem with the female characters—not so much the dames, who are sufficiently stylised that it doesn’t matter, but the actual characters Mary and Barbara really suffer. Indeed the whole plot needs the Freudian thing to work, but while it’s quite clever, it’s a cheat.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON—We’ve been in Reich’s head, but Reich himself doesn’t consciously know why he killed D’Courtney, or that D’Courtney is his father, he’s just re-enacting primal oedipal urges.

I feel as if I’ve spent this whole post tearing the book to shreds, and yet I do admire it and it contains images that I’ve remembered for decades—especially the nightmare image of Reich thinking he has everything he wants and then realising the world has no stars and nobody else knows what he’s talking about.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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