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The Demolished Man: SF Masterworks 14

by Alfred Bester

(Gollancz, £6.99, 250 pages, paperback, first published 1952, this edition July 1999.) cover scan

Ben Reich, CEO of multiplanetary Monarch Enterprises, is the second most powerful man in the solar system. He is charming, enigmatic, ruthless, and dedicated, and obsessed with becoming the most powerful man in the solar system. So when a merger offer with arch-rival Craye D'Courtney is seemingly rejected out of hand, the only option left to him in his rage of thwarted ambition is something that hasn't been done for seventy years: murder. With D'Courtney out of the way, Reich can take everything. All he has to do is get away with it.

But in the 24th century, extrasensory perception is a profession in its own right, with practitioners of various grades working in business, therapy, and -- unfortunately for Reich -- law enforcement. Espers, particularly the police force's deep-peeping 1st graders, can easily detect intent before and guilt after the fact, making pre-meditated murder a barbarism of the past. Killing D'Courtney requires planning, allies, resources, a cool and meticulous approach -- the very epitome of pre-meditation, and therefore, to all intents and purposes, an impossible task.

But Ben Reich has a talent for accomplishing the impossible. His plan for disposing of D'Courtney goes beautifully -- until he is discovered in the act by D'Courtney's daughter. Lincoln Powell, the 1st grade Esper police prefect assigned to the case, knows that Reich is guilty, but can't find any objective evidence to prove it -- peeped information isn't admissible in court, the girl has disappeared, and Powell's few other clues are leading nowhere. And so Reich and Powell play the game of hunter and hunted, switching roles at every step, stalking each other around the final unfathomable prize/punishment of Demolition.

I first read The Demolished Man when I was about twelve (and the book was about twentysomething), and I remember being scared witless by it -- not surprising really, since most of the people in it are psychopaths of one sort or another. But the raw story and much of its imagery stayed with me, and reading it again only serves to remind me that good writing -- seriously good grab-you-by-the-eyeballs-and-squeeze-your-brain writing -- never ages. Yes, there are anachronistic tickertape-spewing computers, and the principal 'big idea' of institutionalised ESP, while unashamedly science fictional, is also distinctly old hat and pulpy by now. But the consummate skill and rigour with which Bester deploys the ramifications of that big idea are far from old-fashioned -- they are an invigorating cure for the hackneyed plotting and can't-write-for-toffee criminality of much current SF.

Everything in The Demolished Man -- events, actions, motivations, secrets, emotions -- hinges on or spins off the one central precept that legitimised, systematised ESP has eradicated murder from civilised 24th century society, simply because no one would be able to get away with it. Bester makes ESP a very real system, full of rules and politics and loopholes and contradictions that make it as believably fallible as anything humans ever have or likely ever will invent. Thus, for instance, Reich employs a repetitive jingle as a psychic smokescreen, a ditty that starts out as a prescient parody of the memetic ruthlessness of advertising songwriters and ends up as a fragmentary and menacing chant, beautifully paralleling and echoing Reich's gradual loss of hold on his power and sanity. And Powell, in his frustration, takes his Esper ability too far, getting almost fatally lost in the traumatised subconscious of the principal witness and in the process further alienating the woman who loves him. The book is a Freudian smorgasbord -- there is no one in it who isn't damaged goods.

(A digression: how damning would it be to discover that amateur SF critics are more likely to make well-read connections than the professionals? Amid all the brouhaha that enveloped Spielberg's Minority Report a little while back, many of the amateurs and few of the professionals noted that both the film and Dick's original 1956 story, good as they were, were nonetheless palimpsests of The Demolished Man. The Dick/Spielberg precognitive variation arguably gives the central conceit more stability -- active prevention rather than deterrence by threat -- but in doing so it sidesteps The Demolished Man's compelling questions of motivation and postulates a depressingly more fascist trend in society than Bester entertains. The extrasensory perception/precognition gimmick is the least of the correspondences, however; the deeper themes, so gleefully identified by Minority Report's various readers, are abundantly evident in Bester's story. Indeed, the symbolic Oedipal psychodrama elaborated by The Demolished Man is so egregious, so unmissable on the page, that it is hard to escape a sense of, of ... well, of bollocks, really, if I was to carry on in that vein.)

As successfully and starkly science fictional as it is, The Demolished Man is also, at its roots, a riveting hi-tech chase thriller, a headlong adrenaline boost to rival anything by Clancy, Brown et al, and far better written. Reich and Powell's breakneck game of cat-and-mouse races breathlessly around fashionable-as-ever Manhattan, with lethal detours to a cross-town pawnshop and the metaphorical and all-too-literal jungles of Spaceland, a playground for the rich and shameless built on a stationary asteroid plate.

There are political undertones too, but again these are far more subtle and complex than your average hack's white-hat/black-hat worldview. For a start, giving your chief villain the name Reich, making him a power-hungry, expansionist murderer, and then making him as sympathetic as he is monstrous must have been a risky creative decision in 1952, a mere eight years after Hitler's fall -- even now it's the kind of postmodern name-game that brings a shiver along with the knowingly ironic nods. But Bester is adept at such sly dissimulation, at using the glittery surface of pulp narrative to simultaneously conceal and reveal the brute fact: human monsters are still human, and the means by and reasons for which we tame them or destroy them may themselves be of debatable ethical merit. Consider this exchange between Powell and a Demolition expert (ie a 24th century neuropsychologist) toward the end of the book:

" ... Three or four hundred years ago, cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them. Capital punishment, they called it."
"You're kidding."
"Scout's honor."
"But it doesn't make sense. If a man's got the talent and guts to buck society, he's obviously above average. You want to hold onto him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you've got left are the sheep."
"I don't know. Maybe in those days they wanted sheep."

Now read that again, and then a couple more times. Within the context of the novel (particularly the harrowing process of Demolition), the historical period in which it was written, and everything that has happened in the world since, there's more than enough in those five brief, plainspoken bits of dialogue to generate a couple of PhDs.

There's not a globule of fat in Bester's writing. The language is honed into clear, knife-sharp sentences of almost poetic compression. Plot and character meld and mutually impel in a seamless and terrifyingly streamlined trajectory -- it's a book Henry James would have been proud to write, if only he'd got around to reading cyberpunk and taking recreational drugs. For the wannabe writer, it's a masterclass in narrative structure -- the hooks are in from the sweaty-palmed opening nightmare ('Explosion! Concussion!') right through to the twisted turn-your-sympathies-on-their-heads waking version of it at the end. And almost exactly halfway along we find a chapter ending with this:

"Go ahead," Powell called. "Here we are. An easy shot. One for the both of us. Go ahead!" His lean face was suffused with anger. The heavy jet brows scowled over the dark eyes. For half a minute he stared up at the invisible Reich, waiting, hating, daring. At last Reich lowered his eyes and turned his face away from the man who could not see him.
Then Powell took the docile girl through the door and closed it quietly behind him, and Reich knew he had permitted safety to slip through his fingers. He was halfway to Demolition. [Page 126 -- of 250!]

It's a moment of extreme tension that you absolutely believe could go either way, a moment in which it's impossible to decide who to root for, a moment in which all your expectations are suspended in a mad tangle, a moment at which you absolutely cannot stop and go and put the kettle on or decide to give your mum a quick ring or even remember to breathe -- and it is also a perfect precis of a) the plot so far, and b) the book as a whole. In fact, the only thing you can stop for at that point is to sit and marvel at what a bloody good writer Bester was. The Stars My Destination may be the consensus masterpiece, but fifty years on The Demolished Man is as riveting, edgy, and gleefully dark a 'minor' classic as you could wish for.

Review by Robert Guy Cook.

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