This mind-bendy SF crime drama is more howdunnit than whodunnit. The first to ever win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester turns the police procedural genre on its head by employing SF tropes of futurism, telepathy, and space travel. The tightly-wound plot and dynamic, witty style earns its place as a classic in the genre.
This book is must-read for any fan of the genre, and not simply because of its place in SF awards history.
Hundreds of years into the future, ruthless business mogul Ben Reich decides to murder his longtime rival Craye D’Courtney but, in order to get away with it, he must outwit the telepathic Esper community, including tenacious Esper Police Prefect Lincoln Powell. How do you commit murder in a society that can read your thoughts?
If you find yourself rooting for the villain in this novel, it’s only because Bester’s rapid pace and dry wit draw the reader into his evil protagonist’s drama, against their better judgment. Ben Reich is an egomaniacal lunatic, but he is also charismatically droll about the whole ordeal. Even his pursuer, the assiduous Detective Powell, can’t help but share a relationship of mutual respect with his quarry– a common device in crime fiction, but intriguing, nonetheless.
And even though the book follows Reich throughout the plotting and execution of his plan, some critical steps are withheld for later revelation. The lurking mysteries around this narcissistic killer keep the reader turning the pages. How did he manage this part of the plan? Why do people keep calling this asshole a good guy?
Playing with language is Bester’s best strength as a writer. On a fundamental level, brisk and efficient verbs punch up the action. The opening pages are a refreshing welcome, especially after my recent foray with Isaac Asimov and his lack of dynamism. On an esoteric level, the espers make telepathic conversation a high art with linguistically crafty designs that sprawl across their minds and into the pages of the story.
Bester’s use of psychology (albeit, old and icky psychology) to drive his characters to madness is the most critical component of the plot. Everybody knows Freud, and the old perv’s theories help to capture the primal, urgent tone of the novel. In some places, it may feel off-putting and unpleasant to the reader, but this ain’t no Dragnet. The Freudian principles fit well into the character dynamics, and the creepy feeling doesn’t linger long as the POV changes with regularity. Still, any reader with just a slight grasp of historical psychology will probably predict some of the “hidden” character motivations, long before they are actually revealed.
Regardless of all the good stuff, the fifties are still alive in Bester’s future world. Even the bleeps and blurps of “kittenish” computing machinery can’t mask the patronizing intersex exchanges that dominated the era. The men are gruff and prosaic. The women are sexy airheads. There is also a clumsy allusion to Reich as a “world shaker,” which calls to mind the fascist dictators that rocked Bester’s world in the prior decades. Still, Bester does his best to make it all work within his worldview, and the results are compelling sixty years later.
The Demolished Man is a quick, dark, and engrossing tale, with nuggets of dry wit scattered throughout. I highly recommend!