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‘Be grateful you’re not a peeper, sir. Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sickness… Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people.’

Alfred Bester appears on best-of/top SF lists with regularity based on the strength of his two novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination; those novels’ impact on the genre cannot be understated, and you can feel their influence in various ’70s New Wave novels and ’80s cyberpunk works. They exist as two halves of the same coin, the former a detective novel about an impossible murder in a telepathic society, the latter a crime-revenge novel drawing from The Count of Monte Cristo. Bester also wrote a number of excellent short stories in the 1950s but spent most of his career editing Holiday magazine, and when he returned to writing science fiction in the 1970s his novels were mere shadows of their predecessors.

Signet #T4461 - 1970 - Bob Pepper

Signet #T4461 – 1970 – Bob Pepper

In the 24th Century, telepaths—Espers or “peepers”—are completely integrated in modern society. They are the secretaries, the psychologists, the high-priced doctors, lawyers, consultants, and police detectives. With telepathy a common presence, nobody has committed premeditated murder and got away with it in centuries. But that’s what Ben Reich plans to do—with his back against the wall, losing market share to the D’Courtney Cartel, he made one final offer for a merger, equal partnership. D’Courtney declined. That meant war to Reich, and he has a cunning plan to get away with murder. What he didn’t expect was the dogged perseverance of Lincoln Powell, Police Prefect and powerful Esper, whose abilities threaten to undermine Reich’s cunning plan.

At its core, The Demolished Man is just an inverted detective story—the kind of mystery where you start with the impossible crime, and read to see how the detective manages to solve it. It’s also a psychodrama depicting the battle of wills between two powerful characters, something like a Jacobean revenge drama recast in future imagery and adorned in Freudian symbols (Reich’s dreams are haunted by the faceless man pursuing him; later, one of the characters has her mind psychologically rebuilt from infancy to adulthood, and in the process she falls in love with her foster-papa Powell). Bester does a great job with his characters’ psychology, even if it is crusty old Freudian stuff, and it makes for an engaging game of cat-and-mouse. Reich is something of a jerk even though we’re told he’s charismatic, but watching him plan and execute his plot is as entertaining as seeing Powell unravel it. It’s addictive to read the tightly paced power struggles between Reich and Powell, their depth and the stakes with which they play drawn out to epic proportion.

Signet #1105 - 1954 - Stanley Meltzoff.

Signet #1105 – 1954 – Stanley Meltzoff.

Bester manages to do so many things that still feel fresh or groundbreaking today. Characters will toss out an original idea or concept in casual conversation that’s pretty creative, painting in broad, general strokes but layering on those details thick. It creates a deep and textured world for the story without getting bogged down in how jump-cars or video-phones work. Bester plays with linguistics like nobody’s business, breaking traditional formats to depict the Esper conversations. And they’re a thing of beauty, watching the words flow across the page in literal streams of conversations that intersect at one word only to fork off, or playing party games where words become visualizations in a telepathic form of charades. Other linguistic flourishes include truncating names to include other characters, in what felt like an odd choice in the days before 1337speak: “Wygand” becomes “Wyg&;” “Atkins” becomes “@kins.”

While the novel has its timeless elements, others are stark reminders that the novel was born in the early 1950s. There’s a strong Mad Men vibe to everything, where the women are all career girls, pneumatic femme fatale types, or virgin seductresses. And some elements of the book betray Bester’s background in comics. The Esper bureaucracy and metaphysical climax always remind me of Bester’s work on Green Lantern, where he helped define the corps and its oath. One of the early chapters notes that there are only around 111,000 Espers across Earth and its colonies (including Mars and Venus), but the frequency that Espers show up in the novel makes it feel as though you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one (or ten). And the passing references to crystal-tech feel like comic-book magic that more than misses the mark on prophetic technology; I’m not sure even Bester knew how his crystal screens and crystal-recorders functioned, but it sure sounded futuristic, right? Also, how about the corporate code-book that seems more like a throwback to the telegraph?

Shasta - 1953 - Martin Herbstman.

Shasta – 1953 – Martin Herbstman.

I could pick a few more nits, but really, the great parts more than outweigh the imperfections. The Demolished Man is a masterstroke of ’50s science fiction: it’s a book that’s unequivocally a product of the 1950s that still feels modern and fresh, like it was inspired by the cyberpunk generation instead of visa versa. It’s a dynamic, witty, and compelling novel that’s hard to put down. Aside from some quibbles here and there, you could call it flawless. This is a must-read for any science fiction fan, and a fun diversion for mystery readers as well; it’s a great starting-off point if you want to dive into older SF, and if you’re reading all the Hugo Award winners in order, at least you should start on the right foot.

For other perspectives, see the reviews at From Couch To Moon, Speculiction, and Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.

Book Details
Title: The Demolished Man
Author: Alfred Bester
First Published: 1952 (Galaxy magazine serial), 1953 (book)
What I Read: iBooks ebook
Price I Paid: part of the Sci-Fi Classics Humble Bundle ($15 pledge level)
MSRP: $17.95 tpb / $7.97 ebook
ISBN: 1596879882/ B00D2ITJLS