Bester's work is held in high acclaim throughout the science fiction community, and with very good reason. We discussed Bester's The Stars My Destination in a recent Off The Shelf column, and we've also touched on some of his short fiction work within the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction. It seems only a natural course that we would once again step into Bester's futurism to look at what is considered by many to be his crowning achievement of science fiction literature.
Winner of the first Hugo Award for science fiction, The Demolished Man is not an all-together new wave story. It in fact takes well known ideas that have been used time and time again by such writers as Arthor Conan Doyle and similar mystery/thriller writers. The backdrop of the story is, however, firmly set in a future world devised by Bester, and this places it strongly in the science fiction category.
The setting is not a spectacular one. The geography is similar to today's, but we add to this human enhancements and discoveries that have created an Esper Guild - a guild of mind readers organized into three levels that have the ability to peer into the minds of other people and know their thoughts. These peepers, as they are sometimes called, obviously enough take various positions in society where their work can benefit mankind at large. Doctors, lawyers, psychologists and police. With peepers firmly entrenched in the workings of society crime is therefore difficult and, indeed, it's been 79 years since the last murder. It's simply not practical to perform a crime when someone can look you in the eye and know not only if you did it, but how, with who and why.
Ben Reich, top dog of a conglomeration with their hands in nearly every form of manufacture and production, is losing ground in the market to enemy D'Courtney, head of another similar business organization. Feeling there was no other way to go about winning this battle of businesses, Reich plots and effects the murder of his adversary with the help of another peeper Gus Tate. Police prefect Powell, another strong peeper, begins an investigation to trap and capture Reich in an attempt to gather enough evidence to prosecute him. The differences with contemporary mystery novels is that throughout the entire course of the book, you and everyone else is aware of the murderer - it's the evasion tactics that are discussed in depth, with the police attempting to capture Reich and gather enough to build a case on.
Near the end the novel picks up speed and barrels on to a spectacular ending. Bester tickles the storyline with a bit of theology and chaos metaphysics, but just enough to make you wonder. I would have appreciated a better explanation for the Reich-as-Godlike idea that was expressed. We also enter into a psycho-thriller period that details Reich's true motive and further enhances this beyond a run of the mill mystery. The true power of the Esper Guild is also shown to great effect when Powell joins forces with others in the guild to dismantle Rech's reality from the inside out - the closure and final capture is spectacular.
The Demolished Man was very fast paced. It hits a number of strange ideas within it, some barely explained that I would have liked discussed further, but it moved swiftly enough to closing that you are whisked past this without too much notice. The characters are well defined and the attempted capture methods and evasion tactics used were very well thought out. I could have done without the cop-falls-in-love piece however, as I didn't find it adds much of anything to the overall story.
"The Demolished Man" by
Introduction by Harry Harrison
Copyright © 1951 by Galaxy Publishing Corp. & Copyright © 1953 by Alfred Bester
Printing by First Vintage Books