The Demolished Man
by Alfred Bester
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This novel won the first ever Hugo Award, presented at the World Science Fiction Convention (PhilConII) in Philadelphia in 1953. It's not necessarily the book from 1952 that I would have selected (more on that later), but it is very good and still stands up as an intriguing read nearly sixty years later. It is a very good example to show those outside the genre that SF has never been only about space ships, robots and ray guns, or only geared toward a juvenile audience, which I am sure was the prevalent attitude at the time (and unfortunately probably still is). It was serialized in Galaxy magazine in three parts, beginning in January 1952 (thus making it eligible for the '53 Hugo), with its first book publication coming early the following year. As I mentioned in my profile article on Bester, his higher education was focused on psychology, a discipline he put to good use in the narratives of many of his stories, perhaps none so well as in The Demolished Man.
I don't want to give too many details about the plot, but most of it can probably be deduced from a bare synopsis. The protagonist is Ben Reich, an immensely wealthy businessman, chairman of the Monarch Corporation, who is fearful of the rival D'Courtney Cartel, whom he assumes is intent on a hostile takeover of his company. Through a scrambled code he presents D'Courtney with a proposal for a merger, and he interprets the response as a negative. Reich has come to the conclusion that there is only one remedy for the situation; he must kill Craye D'Courtney. The only problem with this is that murder (and most other crimes) are almost unheard of in this future society due to the Esper Guild, an organization of men and women who can read minds, many of whom are employed in high positions in police departments and in the judicial branch, as well as in private security and business. Even if someone is successful in committing a crime, it is next to impossible for them to conceal that information from the Espers after the fact. This does not dissuade Reich from the notion that he has figured out a way to beat that system.
I can't recall when I first read this book, but on my recent re-read I kept thinking of the television series "Columbo." In that show, the audience knew from the beginning who committed the murder, the drama came from the cleverness of Detective Columbo in ferreting out the culprit and his attempts to trip them up into revealing information necessary to arrest them. The Esper police detective assigned to the case of D'Courtney's murder is Lincoln Powell, and he suspects Reich from the very beginning, but unfortunately Reich's cleverness makes it very difficult to determine how the crime was committed and with what weapon. Complicating matters is the disappearance of the only witness, D'Courtney's daughter, whom both Powell and Reich are desperate to find. The hardest part of the case for Powell is that he assumes he knows the motive behind the murder, the potential loss of business for Reich's corporation. What he does not understand is the complicated psychological state of Reich, which Reich has buried deep in his subconscious, and which even the disgruntled Esper he has employed to help him accomplish the murder is unable to read. It is only after Reich has made some missteps in trying to cover his tracks that Powell is able to discover the truth. Throughout the ordeal, even though Powell is determined to bring Reich to justice, he also develops a respect and admiration for the businessman. He wants to make sure Reich is convicted and sentenced to demolition (Bester's originally intended title), a curative technique designed to eradicate any anti-social tendencies from criminals. He sees in Reich the individualistic, pioneering spirit that is necessary for society to progress, it just needs to be controlled and directed properly.
Along with the psychological nature of the story, Bester is also successful in imagining the world of the Espers, and how they interact with each other and with non-telepathic members of society. Just as non-telepaths probably envy those with the ability, there is also a heirarchy within the Esper Guild relating to proficiency with the talent. Espers are not allowed to procreate with non-espers, and even fraternization between the various skill levels is discouraged. And just because they exhibit this preternatural ability does not preclude the Espers from all of the normal human emotions of love, pride, fear, envy, even hate. One very interesting notion is how the thought patterns of Espers might appear in their minds, accomplished with some neat tricks of typesetting. There are also elements of the book which may be more sophisticated than you might expect from this time period, mainly in the social and sexual nature of some of the characters' actions. At the same time, it also acknowledges that no matter how things change, the more they will always be the same. Society has always contained those who think they are priviledged, along with those who envy or despise them. Such will it ever be.
Side note: I've done as many searches with as many keywords as I've been able to think of, but I can't find any information on what other novels might have been nominated for the first Hugo. Not only that, as far as I can tell it is the only category to have been awarded that year. Doing a general search on other well known authors and books of 1952, I've come up with five that should have at least been considered, one of which has already been reviewed here, the others being ones I might one day review. The authors are Isaac Asimov (The Currents of Space), Arthur C. Clarke (Islands in the Sky), Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (The Space Merchants), Theodore Sturgeon (More Than Human) and Bernard Wolfe (Limbo). It's a difficult pick, but I think my selection would be the latter, even though it is from an author who contributed little else to the genre. However, that doesn't alter the fact that The Demolished Man is well worth reading. It is back in print, but from a small indie press, so price higher than average, but considering it has had many editions in both paperback and hardcover it would probably be relatively easy to find a used copy. I not only have it in the paperback pictured above, but also in the anthology A Science Fiction Argosy, edited by Damon Knight. Good luck, and good reading.
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