The Demolished Man: Typography and Language

Cover 1After 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.

Cover 2As 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.


Lincoln Powell and Jackson Beck debate how to corner Ben Reich.

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.


Before Lincoln chides his guests…

Party 3

and 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).

Leviathan Wakes – Knowledge is Power

James S. A. Corey, the collaborative pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, received a Hugo nomination this year for their space-opera-esque Leviathan Wakes, a sweeping novel of multiple sites and genres (for a run-down visit Strange Telemetry). The authors have described it as an attempt to explain what happens between near-future and distant-future science fiction, that is, what pushes man out into the vast reaches of space. The novel alternates between two third-person narrators: “righteous” and somewhat uptight Captain James Holden and fallen, divorced, almost alcoholic Detective Joe Miller. While the relationship between these two was a bromance that at times felt cliched, the universe in which the narrative takes place definitely redeems the strained representations of interpersonal relationships.

The Plot: As this is a detective story along with being so many other things, documenting the twists and turns of the narrative would be time-consuming, and consequently, I’ll keep myself to the bare-bones here. The solar system is populated with human colonies as far as the moons of Neptune, though humanity still remains tethered to Earth and the increasingly Earth-like Mars for some resources. When Holden’s ship carrying water to the Belt (those small colonies found in the asteroid belt and beyond) is destroyed by what seems to be the Martian Navy disguised as pirates, he broadcasts what facts he has far and wide in an attempt to get some form of justice. However, he instead starts a war between the Belt and Mars. Meanwhile, Miller tries to maintain order on asteroid Ceres while being tasked with finding runaway rich girl Julie Mao. As the war escalates, with a Martain vessel being destroyed by what appears to be Earth ships, Miller loses his job as a cop but, obsessed with finding Julie, sets out to find Holden, the last human to have contact with Julie’s former ship. Miller and Holden converge on Eros, discover Julie’s body mangled by some bioweapon of unknown origin, and almost get stuck on the station as evil corporation Protogen (who has been behind starting the war) locks it down to run large-scale testing of their new weapon, which Miller and Holden later discover to be a protomolecule of alien origin hurled at the Earth billions of years ago but waylaid by Saturn. The protomolecule remakes life according to whatever instructions it has been programmed with, but also has a sense of improvisation. Miller and Holden team up with the Outer Planets Alliance, a terrorist/freedom fighter organization, to gain control of the space station from which the Protogen experiments are being managed, then to keep Eros and the bioweapon from falling into inner planet hands. As they begin enacting a plan to knock Eros into the sun, though, Eros demonstrates that the protomolecule has managed to adapt the rock into a space ship and it takes off toward Earth with Miller on its surface. As Miller explores its inside in an attempt to disable it before it destroys Earth, he realizes that Julie, or some mutated form of Julie, is controlling the ship. He finds her, wakes her up, and tells her to direct Eros to Venus instead, allowing himself to become part of the protomolecule’s larger ecosystem (and consequently part of Julie). Eros establishes itself on Venus and begins building things there as the governments of Earth, Mars, and the OPA attempt to reach a compromise.

Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

I found two things striking as I was reading, the first being the importance of information distribution in the narrative. Holden, who believes firmly that everyone is entitled to the same information, is constantly broadcasting everything he knows under the assumption that secrecy allows injustice to continue. However, every time he broadcasts something, he starts another round of war as people willfully misinterpret the information as justification for killing people they already wanted to kill. Miller, on the other hand, vehemently argues that you can’t release information until you know what it means and what the effects are going to be. He understands that not everyone is going to be so careful about their analysis before they start shooting. These two characters debate this issue a number of times throughout the novel, and at the end of the novel, neither one is vindicated as right. The war only ceases long enough for negotiations because everyone realizes the greater threat of Protogen and the protomolecule, showing that information is powerful. Furthermore, the fact that Protogen was allowed to work in secrecy in the first place allowed them to enact these monstrosities in the first place. At the same time, these final bursts of information and their positive effects do not outweigh the destruction caused by Holden’s first information releases; the human race is still by and large populated with idiots who will twist data to support their own opinions. What doesn’t get discussed is how the information is packaged. It’s merely a case of releasing or not releasing, as though the information itself is somehow devoid from its surrounding context.

Rhetoric is discussed much more explicitly, though, in one of the novel’s more dramatic moments. After capturing the Protogen space station, Miller, Holden, and the OPA forces interrogate Dresden, who has been in charge of planning and deploying the Eros experiment. When asked why he did it, Dresden talks about the alien race who was already god-like enough to design something like the protomolecule and send it toward Earth before humans had even begun to evolve. He describes the ways in which the protomolecule could be used to adapt humans who did not need oxygen or water or any of the resources that had tied them to Earth, putting them on somewhat more equal footing with those god-like creatures who had already attempted one epic bioattack . Miller promptly shoots the man in the head. Holden is shocked and horrified that Dresden was killed without a trial or jury, but Miller argues that Dresden would have gotten away with it because of his money and power. At the same time, it’s clear that Miller felt he had to shoot Dresden right at that moment because Dresden was  persuading them that such atrocities as those he had committed could be justified with the promise of a super-race. Dresden’s rhetoric was powerful and dangerous and the only way to ensure that it did not spread was to kill the man himself. This in combination with the question of information distribution show that in this novel, words are given a great deal of credit as powerful shapers of action. Repeatedly, Holden returns to the words of his initial broadcast, arguing that he never accused the Martians of attacking the Belters, but others point out that he’s not paying attention to how others would hear his words.

One argument that we could take away from this novel is that hiding behind what the words are as opposed to what they mean is an ineffectual way of understanding our position in the many conversations we are a part of. The novel does ask us to seriously consider the ramifications of dissemination of knowledge, and for this reason, I’m looking forward to the other novels in this series.

The City and the City – The Construction of National Identity

I suddenly realized that I’ve only thus far written about books by women and decided it was time to get back to the man who started this whole project, China Mieville. His The City and the City won the Hugo in 2010 and I read it in a day. Of course, this was before I started teaching and had all day to lounge in my pajamas and read books, but in any case, The City and the City is a real page-turner, perhaps owing to its detective noir facade, which I found quite appealing considering I’m on a real detective kick lately — I can’t stop watching the Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes BBC series and I’ve rekindled my love for Commander Sam Vimes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

The Plot: The novel begins with a murder of a young woman, and Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crimes Unit is on the case. The identity of the victim remains a mystery until Tyador gets an anonymous phone call from Ul Quoma suggesting that the victim lived in Ul Quoma rather than Beszel. This is a problem: Ul Quoma and Beszel occupy a great deal of the same physical space, but the two are strictly divided, and travel between the two is carefully regulated. Though one can see through to Ul Quoma from Beszel, one pretends not to see; though one could easily walk from one city to the other through areas of crosshatch, one does not for fear that Breach, the organization that governs the strict division, will be invoked. In fact, Tyador views this new information as a bit of a relief; he can now turn the case over to Breach and it will be out of his hands. However, after he presents his case to government officials, new evidence comes to light indicating that the body was transported in a van from Ul Quoma to Beszel via completely legal procedures, meaning that there is no justification from invoking Breach. Instead, Tyador is sent to Ul Quoma to work with Ul Quoman Detective Inspector Qussim Dhatt. There he learns that the victim, Mahalia, was an American archaeology student working at a Canadian university dig site who happened to think that she had been contacted by Orciny, the fabled third city that exists between Beszel and Ul Quoma and is actually pulling all the strings. Mahalia had confided in two people that she had been contacted by Orciny, and Tyador tries to arrange to get both of these people out of Ul Quoma with as little government interference as possible. However, as they try to cross the border into Beszel they are attacked by a gunman on the Beszel side while still being in Ul Quoma (but this isn’t breach since he saw them down a official corridor of shared space. Tyador follows the gunman on the Ul Quoma side and shoots him committing breach and finding himself in the custody of Breach. Turns out, Breach is frantically trying to figure out if Orciny is real as well. Skipping over the part where they actually solve the murder, Tyador is denied the chance to return to his life in Beszel and instead becomes an avatar of Breach.

While the plot itself is fairly straightforward, the setting is what makes this novel so interesting. The City and the City, to me, is primarily a novel about the creation and subsequent breaking down of national identity. Most aesthetic markers in the two cities are carefully regulated: certain colors may not be used in one city or the other; clothing choices are intended to immediately mark the wearer as Besz or Ul Quoman; architecture styles are designed to create contrast between the two; a widely-growing plant in both cities is consider a natural part of the landscape in Beszel but is rooted out as a weed in Ul Quoma. And all of this is carefully maintained so that you know who to see and who to unsee as you walk down the street. Visitors to either city must be carefully trained in these markers before visiting, a process that can take several weeks. Furthermore, the languages of the cities, Besz and Illitan, are also a point of contention; Tyador comments, “Illitan bears no resemblance to to Besz. Not does it sound similar. But these distinctions are not as deep as they appear. Despite careful cultural differentiation, in the shape of their grammars and the relations of phonemes (if not the base sounds themselves), the languages are closely related — they share a common ancestor, after all. It feels almost seditious to say so. Still” (42). This is a point that Tyador’s anonymous caller harps on, tipping him off that he is speaking to a unificationist, someone who wants to two cities to become one city. On the other side of the political spectrum are the nationalists groups who, occasionally militantly, defend the sovereignty of their respective cities.

Politics aside, it is actually Breach that ensures the separateness of the two cities, or at least the threat of Breach. Breach presents an excellent illustration of the Foucauldian panopticon: even something like seeing instead of unseeing a person in Ul Quoma can make a Besz worry about Breach. If  a Besz bus lost control and crashed in Ul Quoma, Ul Quomans would do nothing to help the passengers because of fear of Breach. What we learn as the novel progresses is that Breach is not nearly as all-knowing as people believe, but it maintains its power largely through mysteriousness — just because Breach isn’t watching all the time doesn’t mean that you know when Breach is watching.

One of the things I found most interesting about this novel is Tyador’s induction into Breach. His guardian/captor Ashil explains that avatars of Breach are all individuals who breached once: “If you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time… you can’t come back from that” (310). And as much as Tyador doesn’t want to, he sees the truth in what Ashil says and ends the novel living in the city and the city. This idea that there is a point of knowledge that you can’t return from comes up in Embassytown as well, when the Ariekei learn to use metaphor and mourn the passing of the world that they knew through Language, and I’ve been thinking about this idea in several ways. For me personally, it speaks to a certain kind of critical awareness that you can’t come back from: as a rhetorician, I can no longer imagine seeing the world as unrhetorical. In both instances, this permanent knowledge is also associated with a change in physical space: Tyador becomes an inhabitant of both cities instead of just one or the other and Spanish Dancer will travel through the immer with Avice to other worlds. These are spaces that were previously unimaginable, for Spanish Dancer because he didn’t have the language for it and for Tyador because of the careful regulated commonplaces of his split society. I’m curious to see if this theme continues in some of Mieville’s other works, and I’ll be on the lookout for it.