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The Demolished Man (S.F. Masterworks) Paperback – July 1, 1999
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About the Author
Alfred Bester (1913-87) was born in New York and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia. He was a scriptwriter and journalist by profession but he set the science fiction world alight with The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination and his extraordinary short stories in the 1950s, and blazed a trail for the sf New Wave of the 1960s and the cyberpunk writers of the 1980s.
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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.
The only thing I did not like is that this new futuristic society is still depicted as essentially machist: only men have leadership positions, women are totally accessory... pity.
“The law,” he remarked, “makes the silliest damned fuss about death. People die by the thousands every day; but simply because someone has had the energy and enterprise to assist old D’Courtney to his demise, the law insists upon turning him into an enemy of the people. I think it’s idiotic, but please don’t quote me.”
The story delivers on all fronts; antagonist and protagonist are introduced in questionable circumstance; they are 'real' people, complete with virtue and vice; they both have the audience rooting for them at various points, often at the same time. Even the support characters are introduced with a tongue-cheek appeal; "He kissed her casually. She was as shapely as a sales-curve, pretty, but a trifle too young." Add to this the conflict, the reason for the conflict and the agreement Reich and Powell come to as they begin their opposition before they engage in the conflict. It was great.
Almost like Bester said to himself, "What's better than a 'who-done-it'? How about having the cop be a telepath. That way, he can read the mind of his suspect, KNOW the person is guilty and STILL have to prove it the hard way!" Confirmation of the crime in less than a second but still the agony of proving it beyond reasonable doubt. Awesome. But the real stroke of genius here was having the judge, for lack of a better term, be a 'computor':
"His mouth, the cone of a speaker, hung open in a kind of astonishment at human stupidity. His hands, the keys of a multiflex typewriter, poised over a roll of tape, ready to hammer out logic."
Good, good stuff. Some good twists, too. Some are predictable, but still entertaining. The reader is also treated to more of Bester's observations of human behavior, too; "Despite all rival claims, pawnbroking is still the oldest profession. The business of lending money on portable security is the most ancient of human occupations." Another that was rather droll:
"“Damn it! Don’t you tell me that’s a Glow-wart. It’s a weed. Don’t I know a weed when I see it? Hand me the rake, Bernard.”
A small man in black handed him the rake and said: “My name is Walter, Dr. @kins.”
“And that’s your whole trouble,” @kins grunted[.]"
For fans of science fiction looking for a quick read that grabs and maintains interest, "The Demolished Man" should fit the bill. Now, jet and get started.
Most recent customer reviews
I recommend Alfred Bester strongly to any science fiction reader.
Alfred Bester may have had a touch of psionic ability himself.Read more