The Demolished Man: Book Review

Cover of first edition (hardcover)

The Demolished Man

by Alfred Bester

First Publication Date: 1953

Print Length: 240 pages

Publisher: Byron Preiss Visual Publications (May 28, 2013) – Kindle Edition

Read from September 22 to October 04, 2013

My Rating:  3 / 5 stars (liked it)

Book Description:

“In a world policed by telepaths, Ben Reich plans to commit a crime that hasn’t been heard of in 70 years: murder. That’s the only option left for Reich, whose company is losing a 10-year death struggle with rival D’Courtney Enterprises. Terrorized in his dreams by The Man With No Face and driven to the edge after D’Courtney refuses a merger offer, Reich murders his rival and bribes a high-ranking telepath to help him cover his tracks. But while police prefect Lincoln Powell knows Reich is guilty, his telepath’s knowledge is a far cry from admissible evidence.”

First of all, this book a science fiction classic written in 1953 AND won the first Hugo Award!! You know, Hugo Awards happens annually for the best science fiction or fantasy books, so it is rather important for the genre.

Why I enjoy some “old-fashioned” sci-fi?

Well, all of these classic sci-fis have what I would call the “retro-futuristic” view of things. If you lived in the 50’s, how would you imagine the far future? Well, reading authors from the past can give us a hint. And I think it is fun to analyze the visions of these retro-futures and ask myself if they are still acceptable today or how clever they are.

This book, “The Demolished Man”, is somewhat timeless for me.

The future in question (the 22nd century) is a world in which some human beings developed telepathic powers, called peepers. And these peepers are part of the society exercising their roles normally and working as secretaries, psychologists, investigators and so on. The structure is like this:

“First, the background, Mr. Reich: There are approximately one hundred thousand (100,000) 3rd Class Espers in the Esper Guild. An Esper 3 can peep the conscious level of a mind — can discover what a subject is thinking at the moment of thought. A 3rd is the lowest class of telepath. Most of Monarch’s security positions are held by 3rds.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 13, loc. 189-192

“Next, there are approximately ten thousand 2nd Class Espers in the Guild,” the Personnel Chief continued frostily. “They are experts like myself who can penetrate beneath the conscious level of the mind to the preconscious. Most 2nds are in the professional class… physicians, lawyers, engineers, educators, economists, architects and so on.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 13, loc. 194-197

“Finally there are less than a thousand 1st Class Espers in the Guild. The 1sts are capable of deep peeping, through the conscious and preconscious layers down to the unconscious… the lowest levels of the mind. Primordial basic desires and so forth. These, of course, hold premium positions. –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 14, loc. 200-202

The plot of the book revolves around a mysterious murder case with a disappearance, involving powerful industrialists of the society. The case is so fantastic that it is known as the first premeditated murder in 70 years. The work of the peepers has avoided these kinds of crimes, until then…

The curious thing is that the main mystery is not who committed the crime, but how, and how to gather enough evidence to prove it. I am not sure whom I would name as the main character, because the narrative starts with one point of view and changes a lot throughout the book.  Well, there is the guy leading the investigations, Mr. Lincoln Powell, who has telepathic powers and is after the main suspect, Mr. Ben Reich. It is like a game of cat and mouse, since Ben Reich is very influential and uses all sorts of alibis and support from others to evade the investigation. Reich does his best to escape from the major punishment that can be inflicted in him: Demolition!

And Demolition is very scary indeed:

“When a man is demolished at Kingston Hospital, his entire psyche is destroyed. The series of osmotic injections begins with the topmost strata of cortical synapses and slowly works down, switching off every circuit, extinguishing every memory, destroying every particle of the pattern that has been built up since birth. And as the pattern is erased, each particle discharges its portion of energy, turning the entire body into a shuddering maelstrom of dissociation.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 230, loc. 3512-3515

Looking from this perspective, it is a crime thriller set in a distant future in which we have populated other planets of the solar system, we have super-fast (and efficient) space travel but the morals and motivations of the society are still the same.

Some descriptions clearly date the book, as computers humming, and tapes, and almost nonexistent portable devices (less than I would expect of an advanced future). Sometimes I was intrigued by the characters’ weird behaviors, games (and hobbies), but, hey, it is the future, who knows?

Overall, it is a very curious read, and I was awed at the passages in which we are immersed inside the characters minds with the “telepathic” action (although sometimes I got a little confused…).

The author writing style was a bit unusual to me, but it is creative, in a crazy and delightful sense.

And some final word about the existence of telepathy in the future :

“The world will be a wonderful place when everyone’s a peeper and everyone’s adjusted… But until then, be greatful you’re blind.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 225, loc. 3443-3444

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7 thoughts on “The Demolished Man: Book Review

  1. “And I think it is fun to analyze the visions of these retro-futures and ask myself if they are still acceptable today or how clever they are.” I don’t really understand this sentiment… SF authors are not social scientists, predicting the future when it’s “correct” is generally coincidental. They are more concerned about creating a world that they can couch their narrative, characters, social explorations within…. So, when we look back at these visions of the future seldom were they meant to BE visions of the future. Rather, futures they conjured for the sake of a good story!

    Also, what did you think of all the Freudian psychology? It certainly is a profoundly influential use of Freud for SF. And, Freud definitely helps untangle the morass of some of the plot elements.

    • Hey, Joachim, thanks for your feedback!
      Yeah, I agree that the authors don’t actually try to “predict” anything and that the future they envision is not tied with a sense of how our society would evolve (or not). Maybe it is just me, but I enjoy doing the mental exercise of “what if…” questions based on sci-fi visions of a far, near or timeless future. Just for fun!

      Now, leaving the fun part aside, sci-fi can surely discuss issues related to our human nature, our decisions as a society or as individuals and the moral in all of that. In this book, I thought the use of the Freudian psychology was very intense! And that was a surprise for me, I don’t recall reading any other SF book like this, actually. Suggestions?

      • The best known SF novel that uses Freud is Gateway (1977) by Pohl (who recently passed away).

        Also, Brian N. Malzberg (somewhat controversial — I’d read my review of his work first to get a sense — hehe) used Freud a lot in the early 70s — Beyond Apollo, Revelations, etc.

  2. Hmmm,Gateway seems very interesting, I’ll make sure to check it out!
    I’ll read your reviews on Brian N. Malzberg’s works, the “controversial” aspect made me curious 🙂
    Thanks for the suggestions, I appreciate learning from experienced sci-fi readers! Loved your blog of “vintage” (can I say that?) SF!

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