“The Demolished Man” was written in 1953, and has the distinction of being the first winner of the Hugo Award. Bester has written a very interesting idea, and while it has not always aged well, there is still much of interest.
The story is an inverted detective story, in that we know the identity of the criminal from the start and wait to see if he will be caught.
The criminal is Ben Reich, a rich and powerful businessman who wants to murder a business rival who he believes is threatening his business. The main challenge he faces in carrying out this crime without getting caught is that the future world has a lot of telepaths in all walks of life. They are hired as private security and also work in the police. Consequently it becomes virtually impossible to carry out a crime before your intent is known and you are stopped. Opposing him is Lincoln Powell, a telepathic policeman, who has realised Reich’s guilt but needs to prove it.
The main characters in the story were credible and complex. Even before he conceives his plan, the reader gets the sense that Reich, for all his power and money, has some psychological damage. He has frequent nightmares where he is hunted by a faceless nemesis. While he employs a telepathic psychiatrist, he doesn’t employ a very powerful one, and the psychiatrist points out that Reich’s paranoia prevents him from employing very powerful telepaths despite the fact that he could afford them easily. Reich does not listen to the advice of this character, and shows in his interactions with others that while he can be smooth when he wants, his default position seems to be more that of a bullying, violent man. The reader gets a strong sense of instability from this character right from the start.
Lincoln Powell is another character with a strong streak of instability, in spite of his role in law enforcement. He refers to himself as having an alter ego, ‘dishonest Abe’, who lies and manipulates, apparently for fun. He is moral, intent on bringing the criminal to justice, and yet has this strange aberration that seems untrustworthy.
There is not much in the way of character development other than these two. Minor characters don’t really jump off the page. Then there are the female characters, which leads into one of the ways in which this book has not aged well. The sexism is rampant. A female telepath begs Lincoln for marriage even though her telepathy has already told her he does not love her. Her unrequited love is her only real defining feature, and she comes across as quite needy and clingy. An associate of Reich indicates some kind of masochistic streak, allowing him to use her and requesting he treat her violently. Again she seems to have no other defining character. A wealthy socialite is defined only by her excessive plastic surgery and incessant desire for sex. The daughter of the murder victim has daddy issues. I have read other books of the era, and a level of sexism is expected, however this book does not fare well even by the standards of the time.
The author has created an interesting world. As telepathy becomes more and more widespread this has obviously shaped the society in terms of its structure and laws. The telepaths are registered in a guild, which obliges them to swear oaths about how they will use their gifts, and they try to self-regulate in order to live ethically. The fact that there are those who break these rules, and those who conspire to overthrow them, I felt made the society more believable, because people not wanting to do the right thing will always be with us.
The apparent obsession of many of the characters with their own psychological state seemed like a plausible aspect of a partially telepathic society. This is expressed in Freudian terms, which dates the book, but the author was only going with the prevalent beliefs at the time so can be forgiven for this. Curiously, many of the characters experience a level of self-delusion that seems at odds with their incessant self-analysis. Ben’s delusion is obvious, but I would also say that the telepathic characters have a similar blind spot, Their action to unmask and convict Ben seems drastic, and they explain it by saying Reich is dangerous and will ‘remake the world in his own image’. It is unclear what is meant by this, though my interpretation was that Reich will gain a dangerous monopoly and wield a massive amount of economic and political power. Such power in the hands of an unstable individual would be a bad thing, certainly. Given, however, that Reich is anti-telepath and has already taken actions against them, are they really acting in anything other than self-interest, for all their moral high ground? I would put self-deception as a theme of this book, though not the main one.
The main theme would be identity, or the lack of it. The criminal, we are told, faces ‘demolition’ if caught, though we do not find out until the end what that entails. But Reich, it is clear, is a ‘demolished man’ already, in that his escalating psychosis is destroying him, even as he is blissfully ignorant of this fact. Lincoln, on the other hand, accepts his split personality, but we have to ask, which personality is Lincoln? To what extent are they both Lincoln? Who is he, really? Even his colleagues seem to be uncertain.
In conclusion, it’s a fun read for the science fiction fan, but flawed. Don’t expect too much.
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