Oct 22 2010 9:52am

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

The Demolished Man by Alfred BesterThe 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.

Paul Howard
1. DrakBibliophile
One interesting note, in Babylon 5, the main PSI Cop is named "Al Bester".

By the way, we learn in the PSI Corps Trilogy (set in the B5 universe) that he was given the name "Alfred Bester" by a man who had read Bester's book.
Michael S. Schiffer
2. Michael S. Schiffer
"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."

Though not necessarily one that exists in reality. (E.g., satires on the Olympian gods, or the square-jawed space hero.)

Randall Garrett did one of his retellings in verse for this book, which made heavy use of the typographical tricks. Worth tracking down for lines like "He's gone into that mor* his hide!" (It's in one of the _Takeoff!_ books.)
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Michael: You're right. But a common imagination of archetype at least.

As for the Garrett, that's the famous one with:

"There's a part of the plot I completely forgot..."

and a very clever use of a parenthesis. Amazingly clever, and amazingly memorable too. Randall Garrett was just brilliant. I almost quoted it in the post, but I don't have a copy, and I'm almost sure I remember it right.
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
Jo- While I agree with you in general, I still think I like this book more than you.

BUT, you are totally correct in suggesting his short stories are his best stuff. I got "The Dark Side of The Earth" as a gift two years ago. I was blown away by how good and funny it is. I stress funny. He has a sense of humor in his short fiction that sometimes isn't present in the novels.
jon meltzer
5. jmeltzer
"Tense all the way through."

Apprehensive, too. Aaugh! Earworm!!
James Goetsch
6. Jedikalos
You have expressed my view exactly: I recognize it is excellent work but I do not enjoy it. Same with Harlan Ellison's work for me: I know it is well done, but I do not enjoy it at all. Ah, well, things are not good because I like them . . .
Elizabeth Coleman
7. elizabethcoleman
I liked this one, but one of the big reasons I love Bester is because his stuff is so psychedelically Freudian. Its...wacky. When I was scouring my library looking for a book to take me to the doctor's office for an appointment for minor surgery, I was thinking, "Hmm... what's the best book to accompany getting a hole cut in your head? Alfred Bester!"
Besides, for a fan of Babylon 5, this book is basically a historical document.
Michael Grosberg
8. Michael_GR
If you take exception to Freudian psychoanalysis, then Bester is not for you. There's a Freudian twist in practically all of his stories. Then again Bester uses "Id" and "Super Ego" like other SF writers use "quantum" or "Tachion"; more like magic incantations than serious scientif terms. I'd call Bester the great myth-maker of pop psychology. In a later novel he would have people enter the collective uncosciousness (by the use of radioactive drugs!) in order to interact and talk to the demons who inhabit that realm.
Michael S. Schiffer
9. James Davis Nicoll
Is that Patrick McGoohan to the lower right?
Steven Gould
10. StevenGould
If I remember right, there's is at least one person of color in the book. "A young negro" who can hear the real message to go to the door marked employees only. I remember and it's been years since I've read the book.

However, I'm remembering it because it was so unusual for a book of its era. Alas, he is still an un-named character we never see again. None of the pov charcters or their friends, empolyees, and associates seem to be persons of color.

My memory on this next part is less clear, but I don't remember any of the female espers being anything but esper housewives. Is this a false memory?

Still, it is an amazing book for being so part of its time.
Michael S. Schiffer
11. DBratman
Soon after _The Demolished Man_ was published, _The Nation_ published lists by four SF mavens - Heinlein, Vonnegut (who hadn't yet decided he wasn't an SF writer), Boucher, and Gold - of basic recommended SF literature. _The Demolished Man_ was the only book on all four lists.

Amusingly, not long afterwards _The New Statesman_ published an sf-trashing article actually titled "A Counterblast to Science Fiction", which quoted some of the typographical tricks in _The Demolished Man_ and dismissed the book as totally unreadable thereby. (The writer didn't identify the book nor any of the other stories he discussed and trashed, among them Bradbury's classic "There Will Come Soft Rains", but summarizing and quoting from SF stories without naming their titles or authors was standard practice in out-of-genre criticism of SF in those days, for whatever weird reason.)
Patrick Garson
12. patrickg
For this, and Tiger, Tiger (The Stars My Destination), Bester gets a free pass for life from me - despite his horrible later novels.

This book is so astonishingly ahead of its time - its decades ahead of what Bester's contemporaries were publishing and its influence straddles so much science fiction today.

We can see Bester's tortured psychologies and amoral protagonists in Philip K Dick's work. Also, as writers, I think they're both very motivated by the human; what makes us human, what is the limit of humanity, how does being a human inter-relate with the technology we use, and how we use it. In this respect, Alistair Reynolds also stands out as a Bester inheritor.

I agree that the book is not especially progressive, politically speaking, for its time. The sad thing is, there's still a tonne of sci fi published today that's little or no better than this.

I think the other great strength of Bester (baffingly, given some of his later work), is his taut plotting. The cat and mouse elements of both this novel, and Tiger Tiger are superb. Bester creates a system, a ruleset - or even a game, if you like - and explores its limits thoroughly, logically, and thrillingly. It's a genuine pleasure to read a book with nary a deus ex machina, or fudgy, kludgy plot work-around for the sake of it.

So yeah, I like this book a lot. And I agree that the Freudian metaphors add, rather than detract. Without that, The Demolished Man would be little more than an exciting version of Asimov's Caves of Steel.
Michael S. Schiffer
13. Danny Sichel
My god. Would you believe I've read The Demolished Man twice, and never picked up on the Freudian overtones?

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