Monday, 30 May 2011

Review: The Demolished Man

 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1951)

Ben Reich, Überkapitalist and owner of Monarch Enterprises is locked in a financial death struggle with Craye D'Courtney, head of the D'Courtney Cartel.  When D'Courtney reject's Reich's offer of a merger, Reich decides that the only way out is murder.  The only problem is that there hasn't been a murder committed in almost three quarters of a century.  Why?  Imagine a world where the police are telepathic.  Imagine that crimes are detected as soon as the thought is formed.  That is the world of the future that Reich lives in. Not being a telepath, he has about as much chance of getting away with murder as a blind shoplifter in a piano shop.  Unless, that is, he is very, very clever.

 The Demolished Man has its footnote in history by being the winner of the first Hugo Award for best novel in 1953, though the novel was published in 1951 and serialised in 1952.   It's a book of stark, vivid imagery and some remarkable innovations, such as the use of typography to convey what instantaneous telepathic conversations are like, as in this mind-reading cocktail party:
It's also been called a "police procedural", though that's a bit of a stretch.  True, we do follow policeman Lincoln Powell of the Psychotic Division as he tries to build a case against Reich, a particularly frustrating task because Powell knows telepathically that Reich is guilty but can't prove it, but this it's a very long way from Dragnet or Law & Order.   A better way to describe it is as a satirical, Freudian howdunnit with surrealistic overtones.  Freudian psychology was a fad in the 1950s and Bester exploits it to the hilt not only as for plot twists, but as the basis for the society he depicts.  His writing is lean, effective, and stands out from the less disciplined science fiction of the day–small wonder when you consider that Bester was a successful radio and television writer who instinctively knew the value of story-telling economy.  Even at it's most bizarre, The Demolished Man remains taut and avoids the self-indulgent cul-de-sacs that would become a blighted feature of later science fiction.  The only unforgivable flaw is a strange gear shift in the third act where Reich becomes a "galactic" menace for not explainable reason.  It looks almost as if Bester had an idea and didn't have time to go back and craft it properly into the rest of the story.  It's a minor flaw and one that Bester's lightning pace manages to let slide by in a way that the reader can forgive–at least until the book is finished.

The Demolished Man had a great influence on later science fiction.  The writing is half serious, half joke with a distinctly New York feel and the style of Bester's future world is that mixture of advanced technology and social decay that would later run under the moniker of "steampunk".  Sometimes it reads almost like a blueprint for the novels of William Gibson or an early script for Ridley Scott's Bladerunner.  It even influenced television in the form of the Psi Corp of Babylon 5, which was based very heavily on the Telepath's Guild of the novel, but might have guessed that since the head of the Psi Corp was named Alfred Bester.

No comments:

Post a Comment