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The Demolished Man by Alfred BesterUK edition3.5 stars
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Hugo Award winnerThe Demolished Man — the first novel to win the Hugo Award — is set in the 24th century, when many people are Espers, possessing telepathy to one degree or another. Telepathy was once a very literal concept in SF, all about hearing thoughts in the same way you can’t help overhearing someone’s phone call because they haven’t got the courtesy not to talk on speaker in public. It seems to me this kind of telepathy would be the opposite of a gift. Imagine being able to just hear what anyone was thinking at any time. If you think you see somebody’s worst version of themselves on anonymous social media posts, imagine being able to peer into the darkest crevasses of their mind!

Speculating on the cultural impact of living with widespread telepathy is what inspired Alfred Bester to write a story in which a man plans and carries out a murder in a world where no such crime has been possible for 70 years. Ben Reich is a megalomaniac tycoon whose increasing paranoia, brought on by nightmares of a menacing faceless man, leads him to suspect that his chief business rival, Craye D’Courtney, is out to destroy him. Reich’s corporate cartel is indeed spiraling into bankruptcy, but D’Courtney has actually accepted a merger offer from Reich. But Reich, approaching full on psychosis, misinterprets D’Courtney’s acceptance as rejection. Thus Reich decides to slay the man right in the middle of one of the ostentatious and famous parties held by a flamboyant socialite, in whose home D’Courtney is staying during one of his rare visits to Earth from Mars.

Planning this unprecedented crime will require care, of course. And here we see the interesting political landscape of Bester’s future. Espers are widespread, and they’re powerful in their talents to varying degrees, which are broken down by the Esper guild into three classes. The guild makes it their responsibility to find latent telepaths in society and help train them, but within the guild there’s a little clandestine group calling itself the League of Esper Patriots, who believe in the natural superiority of Espers and that society should be under Esper rule. Since the guild already encourages intermarriage between Espers to make more little Espers, the underlying theme of eugenics in a book published only a few short years after World War II gives The Demolished Man a bit more thematic weight, which still resonates today. Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but “patriot” is almost always the first word you’ll see authoritarians use in reference to themselves.

To protect himself from detection, Reich bribes Gus Tate, a prominent Class 1 Esper psychiatrist, to help him pinpoint D’Courtney’s location. Tate belongs to the League of Esper Patriots, which Reich is secretly funding. Reich also acquires an antique pistol from Jerry Church, an Esper who helped Reich break the law once before and was banished from the Guild for it, and Reich modifies the cartridges to thwart ballistics evidence. Finally, among other preparations, Reich has a songwriter friend teach him an annoying little jingle which installs itself in his mind like an earworm, as a way of scrambling his thoughts from easy detection by Espers. I won’t go so far as to say Bester foreshadowed rickrolling with this one, but it is a funny idea.

So the deed is done, in what may be the most audacious and mind-boggling scene of its type in all of science fiction. And the rest of the novel becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Reich and police investigator Lincoln Powell, a Class 1 Esper who’s so good at what he does he is expected to become the next president of the Esper guild. Powell is faced with the problem that telepathically gathered evidence is not admissible in court, and so to bring Reich to justice, he’s got to do old fashioned police work, by proving motive, method and opportunity. Powell knows Reich is guilty, and Reich knows he knows, and the novel speeds us along a frantic pursuit of the truth by Powell, with Reich racing to stay one step ahead of him as much as possible.

This is, to put it mildly, not a book in which you’ll find characters who are believable or relatable as human beings, at least not in the way authors create characters in the 21st century. Not much is done with female characters outside their roles as helpers or love interests, although the socialite Maria Beaumont, whom everyone calls the Gilt Corpse, seems like the kind of character someone like David Lynch or John Waters could absolutely go to town with. Everyone here is super extra in their personalities, which, as I said, works fine if the book is read with an eye towards its comedy. But there are definitely recognizable types. When Powell explains to his fellow Espers that Reich isn’t just a criminal but someone who presents an existential threat, because his megalomania and depravity are so all-consuming that he has the power to drag all of society down with him, well — I think we can all picture someone today who’s presenting a very similar danger.

Stylistically there are some interesting if dated touches, such as how Bester plays with typography, which, at its best, offers the reader a completely believable sense of what it might be like to be engaged in several telepathic conversations at once. If you’re going to do stunt-writing, at least do it in service to your storytelling. Also, the story ends with a reveal that goes a little too far in the direction of Freudianism to be anything but eye-rolling. On the other hand, we learn that Demolition — the fearsome-sounding punishment that Reich faces if convicted — actually offers a bit more progressive an outlook on the concept of criminal rehabilitation than might be expected. The first Hugo novel turns out not to be the kind of dry, techie, cold storytelling many readers these days associate with the SF of decades past, but a story that tries to extrapolate the social impact of the future it creates, and what such a future would mean to us as people. The Demolished Man remains a worthy foundation on which to build the Hugos’ long and enduring legacy.