Friday, June 25, 2010

Consideration of Works Past: Bester's Demolished Man

Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man was first published as a novel in 1953. It won the first Hugo for SF's best novel.

I've discussed Bester before regarding his novel The Stars My Destination-- you can read that post here. While my enjoyment of Stars has survived into my dotage, any enjoyment of TDM has since passed.

Bester was an extremely inventive writer and what enjoyment I still get from TDM comes from that.

The story must have been interesting back in 1953. In Bester's future telepaths (called espers) are present but rare. They are useful in most areas of society and have managed to create a world where murder is rare. If a telepath can tell you're going to murder someone he can stop you. (There is some similarity to Phillip K Dick's Minority Report. MR was published in 1956 and I can't help wondering if he was inspired by TDM. But I digress.)

There is, of course, a murder. The rest of the book is attempting to play pin the murder on the suspect.

Bester wrote this book in this overheated Mickey Spillane sort of style. Put the pedal to the metal and damn the footnotes. He does something a little similar in the style of Stars but in that case the characters are much more believably larger than life. Pushing a businessman in that vein is a bit harder to take. Which, by the way, is one of the problems I have with Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Much as I like architects, they never seemed all that hot.

The detective, Lincoln Powell, figures out very early on that Ben Reich has committed the murder. The rest of the book is Powell trying to figure out how to prove it within the rules of prosecution. These are pretty contrived: telepathic evidence, even by a policeman, is not permissible except under circumstances, all three components of the act, method, motive and opportunity, must be proven, the judge is a machine, etc.

There are a few interesting things in the novel. Bester was ahead of his time in realizing that in the future the proof of the crime would be the most difficult part while apprehension of the criminal would become easier. There is the aspect of how a telepathic "peep" might compromise the fifth amendment-- though in his future there's not much presence of a country. Places are mentioned but without any real government or legal presence. There's the idea of "demolition", the 24th alternative to capital punishment, where the memories and personality of the individual are destroyed and only the naked brain is preserved. How this is in any way more humane than actual death is not explored.

In fact, not much that he presents of things that are in fact interesting are at all explored.

What Bester was interested in was the esper community and how they interacted. And I think here is where Bester failed. He did present the idea that telepaths would require a community of their own and that ostracism to normal humans would be catastrophic. Fine and good-- however, a much better treatment of the role of telepathy and what it would mean to the individual is in John Brunner's The Whole Man. (I spoke about TWM here.) What Bester says in his book, once you strip out the pretty type facing, is not much more than I said. Ostracism is bad. Ostracism by telepathists is worse. There is also a long and execrable subplot involving a Freudian regression of a young girl back to a baby where Powell becomes the father figure and is, of course, her love interest by the end of the book-- but the less said about that the better.

The rest of the book isn't worth much to modern eyes except where it bears on Stars.

You can see in TDM a lot of techniques that Bester tried, failed and got right in The Stars My Destination. Bester was thirty when he wrote TDM. He had written some truly brilliant short fiction. TDM was his first try at a novel. It was serialized in 1952 prior to its actual publication in 1953.

After TDM he wrote a novel called The Rat Race, of which I know nothing except the cover. Tag line: "A savage, merciless satire of the TV business."

Which makes Stars his third novel. The work shows.

So: The Demolished Man: Not a great book. Interesting for its time. Hasn't weathered well.

But it does make me want to read The Rat Race.

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