After a very, very long vacation, Speculative Rhetoric is back, this time with even more ambitious reading plans. I’ve decided to mark the occasion of me throwing myself back into the world of reading and writing about speculative fiction by reviewing the very first winner of the Hugo Award, Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man. In the course of his varied career, Bester wrote for television, radio, and comics (he created DC villain Solomon Grundy) as well as science fiction short stories and novels.
The Plot: The Demolished Man is best described as a police procedural in a world with telepaths – when antagonist Ben Reich sets out to commit a premeditated murder, he is more concerned with someone catching him before he can act than he is with how he will carry out the crime itself. Reich is a vicious businessman, completely convinced that his primary competitor, the D’Courtney Cartel, will ruin him and that the only way to prevent that from happening is to kill its head, Craye D’Courtney. This paranoia is both fueled by and results in recurring dreams of a man with no face constantly appearing in Reich’s life. Having decided on his plan of action, Reich blackmails/bribes Class 1 esper (a powerful telepath) Augustus Tate to aid him by shielding his mind from other espers, but his carefully laid plans are completely disrupted when D’Courtney’s daughter interrupts Reich during the act and he is unable to permanently silence her before she escapes. Once the murder is discovered, Class 1 esper and police Prefect Lincoln Powell is faced with a whole party of suspects and a missing eye witness. Reich and Powell find themselves in a race to locate the missing woman, while the true motivation for the crime continues to unfold.
The World: What we know about the world of The Demolished Man is mostly glimpsed through brief references, but humans have apparently colonized much of their solar system and have relatively easy transport throughout. Contemporary society is highly capitalistic, as seen with Reich’s drive toward creating a transport monopoly, and heavily branded – one character is a famous writer of jingles that Reich visits to infect himself with an earworm, a further measure against prying espers. The espers themselves are the most wide-reaching feature of the novel, though they continue to be a minority in the population. Telepaths are organized into a Guild that has established the class system based on a telepaths ability, educational and recruitment programs, and regulations regarding marriage, employment, and appropriate ethical behavior for espers. Should an esper break these regulations, they are exiled from the Guild for a period of time, and no Guild esper will communicate with them telepathically; one character describes this as being like an able-bodied person forced to live in a community of deaf and blind people, never able to fully engage with others. The Guild requires that espers marry other espers, in the interest of producing children with telepathic abilities. Additionally, due to espers throughout society, including in the police force, pre-meditated crime happens rarely, because an individual’s intentions are detected before they can act.
As I was preparing to write this post, I found this quote from Bester’s essay “My Affair with Science Fiction” describing the events that followed his first published story winning an amateur story competition in Thrilling Wonder Stories: “Two editors on the staff […] took an interest in me, I suspect mostly because I’d just finished reading and annotating Joyce’s Ulysses and would preach it enthusiastically without provocation, to their great amusement.” I was struck by this statement because I had described The Demolished Man as a science fiction version of British modernism, chocked full of awkward Freudianism, with the plot hinging on Reich’s oedipal compulsions (spoiler alert: D’Courtney is Reich’s father, though Reich seems to have repressed his knowledge of this fact to the point of unconsciously misreading messages sent by the other man). Sections of the novel are devoted to Lincoln Powell diving into the psyche of D’Courtney’s daughter Barbara who, after becoming catatonic as a result of witnessing her father’s murder, is regressed to an infant state to mentally grow up once more and thereby come to cope with the trauma – a plot device that allows the electra complex to make an appearance as Barbara and Lincoln fall in love with each other as he raises her out of infancy and into adulthood. It’s actually this Freudianism that takes the misogyny of the era from irritating to downright creepy for me; while Lincoln has a grown woman with whom he’s developed a close friendship (Mary) who loves and is in love with him, he wants the woman who he raised through childhood and adolescents (although it appears that Mary did most of the work).
While I may have rolled my eyes at the psychoanalytics of The Demolished Man (much in the same way I roll my eyes as D. H. Lawrence), I can see why it would have been chosen as a Hugo winner, as it does what science fiction as a genre is best at: Bester takes one change to the world as we know it (the existence of a relatively large number of telepaths) and explores the social implications of this change, especially in matters of law enforcement. I was particularly drawn to the question of what counts as evidence; while Lincoln is sure from the start that Reich was the culprit, he needed to find the right kinds of evidence to convince the Mosaic Multiplex Prosecution Computor, or “Old Man Mose,” that the case is solid enough for the District Attorney to move on it. Lincoln can’t just dive into Reich’s brain and pull out the memory of the murder, for instance, and have it count as proof within a court of law as such an act would be a violation of due process and, perhaps, Guild regulations. There’s also the issue of the limitations of espers themselves. Lincoln Powell is a Class 1 esper, one of only a few very powerful telepaths, yet even can’t “peep” a whole group of people at one time. Interrogating a mind to the depths that are required to determine a murderer who is hiding as well as Reich is requires time, energy, and focus, and in the end, the entire Guild must channel their power into Lincoln for him to adequately breach Reich’s repressed knowledge and emotions toward D’Courtney.
In terms of language, the most interesting aspect of this book was the ways Bester found to represent telepathic communication in typography, which further solidifies this notion that espers are not all-powerful – they must make a point to organize their communication much in the same way we do when we speak, not all talking over each other at once. In fact, the way TP communication is presented is more like the realities of spoken communication. Apart from more experimental poetry and the like, print text can only present speech as happening linearly – first one person speaks, then another. Even if the narrator describes these statements as happening at the same time, we still read one first, then the other. Bester uses a few typographical tricks to break up this linearity, like in this conversation between Lincoln and another detective.
And here’s a couple of images of esper party conversation, one from before Lincoln called attention to the mess of a pattern they were making with their chatter and the more organized pattern that the guests arranged themselves in after.
The thing I really like about these typographical tricks is that they imply that, like most people, even telepaths can only focus on understanding one bit of language at a time, a limitation that becomes all too clear when you’re sitting in a presentation where the speaker has a screen full of text she wants you to read while you listen to her say something entirely different.
Final Thoughts: I don’t think I’ll ever feel compelled to read The Demolished Man again, much in the same way that I’ll probably never reread Joyce’s Ulysses. And while it does a few interesting things making it worthy of consideration for a Hugo, it had some stiff competition that year (though for this first year, no nominees were selected like in following years). Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End also explores some of the psychological problems of a mind not ready to grapple with reality, but on a larger, societal scale. And in terms of its cultural impact, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is by far the most notable SF novel of 1953 (and probably would have been my pick for the Hugo).