Friday, November 12, 2010

Review - The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Short review: Murder is impossible in a world with telepaths, but a man tries anyway.

Ben Reich is insane
Says Tensor, said the Tenser
Is caught, demolished

Full review: In 1953, the first set of Hugo Awards were handed out. The first novel to win the Hugo was The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester. Though some might quibble that Simak's City or Sturgeon's More Than Human are better books, The Demolished Man is, in my opinion, an instance in which the Hugo went to the right book. The novel is a murder mystery set in a future full of telepaths in which murder, or any other serious crime, has become effectively impossible because anyone who formed an intent to commit such a crime would give themselves away before they could commit it and be considered to be mentally insane.

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

But Ben Reich, the owner of Monarch, an enormous industrial conglomerate is locked in a struggle with his bitter rival Craye D'Courtney, the owner of the D'Courtney Cartel - a struggle that Reich knows he is losing. Pursued in his dreams by the Man with No Face, Reich determines to do the impossible, and murder Craye and then do something much harder - get away with it. Reich turns his vast fortune towards the task, setting events in motion to hide his efforts to accomplish his deadly task and cover his tracks, including placing the "Tenser, said the Tensor" repetitive jingle into his head that becomes a recurring theme of the novel as Reich focuses on it whenever confronted by a telepath, or as they are often called in the book, a "peeper".

The events of the book move at a rapid clip, with little wasted time spent on exposition or explanation. At the same time, Bester is able to work in such extensive background that this book influenced the depiction of telepaths in a vast array of subsequent science fiction works, most notably the Babylon 5 television series. One would note that it is no accident that the most prominent telepath in the Babylon 5 was named Alfred Bester. The Psi Corps itself was clearly inspired by the Esper Guild, although the Esper Guild as described in The Demolished Man is much more benign than Babylon 5's Psi Corps. The Demolished Man influenced Babylon 5's depiction of telepaths in so many ways - including the numerical rating of telepaths, and the conflict between telepaths and "normals" ("normals" would be those of us who do not have telepathic abilities), the hunt of latent telepaths, genetically approved marriage requirements for telepaths - that listing them all would take forever and so would listing the number of science fiction works that have also been influenced by Bester's book. Just to give one more example, the idea of preventing crime before it takes place shows up in Philip K. Dick's short story The Minority Report (which was the basis for the film The Minority Report). In short, if you've read a science fiction book that features telepaths that was written in the last fifty years, at least some part of it can probably be traced back to something that first appeared in The Demolished Man.

The bulk of the book follows the cat and mouse game between Reich and the telepathic police commissioner Lincoln Powell. Powell knows almost immediately that Reich is the man he is after, but because telepathic evidence is not admissible in court proceedings he has to build his case against Reich by more conventional means. The only real weakness in the plot of the book is that Bester establishes that Powell must prove Reich's motive to be able to secure a conviction against him, a point that becomes critical to the plot. This was somewhat grating to me, because while motive is usually a nice bonus for a prosecutor to establish, it is in no way required to prove motive in order to convict someone of a crime. Bester's overarching plot relies upon this, however, and while this bit of legal silliness is mildly annoying, it is necessary for the story to work, and can be forgiven on that basis. The novel, in many ways, is so tightly constructed that there is essentially no wasted material - if something shows up as a background detail early in the book, it eventually becomes an element of the plot. Bester also never over explains, trusting the reader to put connections together on their own, making the book almost a case study in how to build science fiction background without weighing down the story with clumsy infodumps. Even the concept of "demolition" is not explained for much of the book, even though it is referenced from the very start. Preserving some mystery about these sorts of elements makes them more ominous: all of the characters agree that demolition is something to be avoided, and their fear gives it power that an early explanation would have drained away.

The book is, however, not perfect. It has a couple of other minor problems resulting from being written in the early 1950s. It relies too much upon the now mostly discredited Freudian conception of the human personality, and the women in the book fill decidedly 1950s era roles as secretaries, wives, harlots, or damsels in distress. Some of the supposedly advanced technology seems fairly laughable today, such as a computer that feeds out piles of typed paper as its only output method, but that is true of almost all older science fiction. On the other hand, Bester's conception of a future society seems quite forward thinking in other ways which keeps the book from suffering too badly in the aging department. Bester's tendency to avoid over explanation is carried too far in some places - late in the book Reich takes on increased personal importance for reasons that are only half explained in the book and could have been improved if they had been expanded upon. Finally, Powell, who had spent the whole book adhering to the highly idealistic precepts of the Guild for the bulk of the book, throws those ideals over the side for a while towards the end of the story. This development only hints at the potentially sinister nature of the Esper Guild (a hint that J. Michael Straczynski followed up on in Babylon 5), which was kind of disappointing as it would have been interesting to see Bester himself follow up on this potential thread.

Overall this is a very strong work of science fiction, that has held up quite well despite its age. Coupling a rapid moving mystery with strong but unobtrusive world building, Bester delivers a vision of the future that remains a compelling and enjoyable story in spite of the handful of cracks that have developed over the years. Anyone who is interested in a gripping science fiction murder mystery, or who is interested in reading a story that is part of the roots of modern science fiction, or who is just interested in a really good story, should pick up this book.

1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

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