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The Demolished Man Paperback – March 17, 2014
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Or did it?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Ben Reich lives a hugely successful life as one of the most powerful and richest man in all of tomorrow. However, even after amassing so much wealth and prosperity, there’s still something eating away at him: a competitor – his business equal named D’Courtney – continues to ‘exist.’ Hoping to solidify his legacy, Reich composes a dastardly plot: either D’Courtney will consent to merging their two corporations, or he’ll be dead.
The twist in THE DEMOLISHED MAN is that, in this world of tomorrow, murder has been obsolete for ages; and that’s because police long ago began using telepaths – psychically-inclined people known as ‘Espers’ – to monitor all of mankind for evil thoughts. After all, what better way to maintain the peace than to know precisely what each and every citizen is thinking at any given moment, allowing the authorities then to intercede before a crime can possibly be perpetrated? Reich has built his world on his abilities to “get things done,” and – come Hell or high water – he has a plan he believes will elude authorities.
And that’s what MAN is really about: man’s conceit to think he can always outsmart the other guy. The theme gets explored in a variety of ways throughout the brisk tale, and that examination isn’t only limited to Reich’s moments in the narrative. His pre-cog pursuer – Lincoln Powell – even participates in dissecting the greater world around them, albeit from the perspective of one who’s gifted with extraordinary abilities. Suffice it to say that neither of these men are fully disclosing to readers as the novel progresses, and it isn’t until very late in the final chapters that Bester’s shown his hand, leaving the audience to finally grasp the complexity of what otherwise seems like a relatively routine procedural throughout these 200+ pages.
Also, Bester constructs portions of MAN with some clever editing and composition. Because characters within the tale have the ability to read minds, they can transfer information in ways other than prose; Bester kinda/sorta toys with the presentation of his text to get some of these ideas across. As much as they were probably exciting for their time (the book was first published in 1951), they’re only interesting by today’s standards. In fact, one might argue that, otherwise, MAN could easily be overlooked as a dated text; it’s the impact of the destruction toward the end that better serves to underscore why the book remains important for today’s possibly cynical readers.
Clearly – if you’re looking closely – you can see how THE DEMOLISHED MAN has influenced other sci-fi products and concepts. Virtual reality. Other precognition works. Heck, I immediately thought of a half-dozen high concept films including THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR and (more apropos) THE MATRIX. There are layers to any existence, and we define our experience by trafficking in these layers. Who we are today is only one step on the road toward the person we’re becoming tomorrow … but what happens if that destination isn’t mutually beneficial for the rest of mankind? Action will be taken, and what’s left of our immortal soul (if anything) as these shrouds are stripped away one by one?
That, my dear, is what ‘Demolition’ is all about.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Others are free to disagree, but I’ve always thought I can measure the greatness of any classic by two traits: (1) despite its age, it’s still relevant, and (2) now that I’ve finished it, I’d discover more of what I missed upon reading it again. Alfred Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN certainly fits the bill so far as I could say. It’s no wonder that the novel was the winner of the first Hugo Award for science fiction novel. On the surface, it’d be easy to dismiss some of its reputation as little more than creative, stylistic meanderings of a genius penning prose; but once you get to the conclusion and come to grips with what really has been going on you might have to pause to pick your jaw up from off the floor before closing the cover.
I know, I know, this book is supposed to be a classic, but I thought it was a real stinker. It reads like a smarmy 50s cops-and-robbers story, which is essentially what it is - only set in the future with telepaths. Don't get me started on the character development! All the female characters are either a) breast-heaving, snuggle-kittens or b) crazy death crones. Just awful.
As it happens...I've lately been doing some "catch-up" in delving into some of these "old days" sci fi that I seemed to have missed...in the fifties and sixties. No problem grabbing up the Heinlein, Asimov, Laumer, Simak, Sheckley, Phillip K. Dick, Haldeman....Frank Herbert novels and short stories...but Albert Bester and John Brunner seemed to have eluded me (though I kept hearing praises of their names). So, the works of these two authors have been on my "must do list" over recent years, as I've visited some good used bookstores. The verdict?
I think that these two authors have been greatly overrated. Not much here to "write home about"...and The Demolished Man" is merely a BIT better than some of the sci-fi around in the early fifties...well, I see a pretty good concept, essentially one dimensional characters, a more or less amateur writing style. Some value in terms of "historical interest," let us say, but "No Cigar," alas.
And, dammit, there WAS some excellent work being done...by folks like those cited above (though, yes, some of this may have been a bit later than TDM, and other Bester product). Were I a sci-fi publisher confronting this piece of work, I'd likely say, "Hey, young man...you have some superb ideas here. Give yourself a couple more weeks for a re-write, then come back and talk to me!!"
I stand abashed. Perhaps I’d been confusing author Alfred Bester with John Brunner (and perhaps—it dawns on me at a later date) I had somehow merely perused the first forty-odd pages, essentially giving them short shrift, and missing the essential premise and impact of the story). I have just-today--begun a second “go” at “The Demolished Man.” This time around, I’d characterize this as a good tale, with a style that is, at times, a bit crude and quaint. Naturally some of this failing, considering its having been published in 1951 (!!), can be forgiven. Not, by any means, at the level of, say, "Stranger in a Strange Land " or "Dune," but worthwhile.
The psychological aspects of this story are probably the most impressive. We have a main character, Reich, who--as a leading corporate executive--has neverending nightmares, which clearly reflect his dramatically flawed character, problematic and unresolved unconscious contends, and corresponding murderous intent. His "path" intersects with a world nearly void of serious crime, due to constant monitoring by trained psychic sensitives, and an extremely rigid ethical code held by those belonging to this professional and social association. Most ot the characterization, seems to me, are two dimensional, and could use more development. I like the fact of the mystery of the identity of the "Man with No Face," which plagues Reich.
My take on Brunner, incidentally, stands. His novels, of which I have some three in my library, tend to feature some good ideas, but are phlegmatic and circuitous/tortuous in style and execution and are—generally speaking—disappointing.