The Demolished Man
by Alfred Bester
Essay by Ted Gioia

Imagine a world without murder.  Then use it as
the setting for a murder mystery.   

That's the challenge Alfred
Bester sets himself in his
unconventional cult classic
The Demolished Man, the
1953 novel that was the
first winner of Hugo Award.  
The book is an oddity—half
science fiction and half
detective story, mixing in
generous doses of the police
procedural genre while antici-
pating elements that would
come to the fore in later
cyberpunk lit. With its
fast pace and campy atmospherics, the book also
reminds us that Bester made his living writing for
comic books, radio and television.  

The Demolished Man is set in the world of the year
2301, when police have an easy time of it. No
successful premeditated murder has been
committed in 79 years. The existence of a cadre
of mind-readers—known as "Espers"—make it
impossible to hide criminal intent from the
authorities.  A murderer will either be stopped
before the crime is even committed, or
apprehended immediately afterwards. In such a
world, the clichéd phrase about "getting away with
murder" has become a pure metaphor, describing
a state of affairs that could never occur in the
real world.

In this environment, Ben Reich is caught up in a
heated conflict with his business rival Craye
D'Courtney, owner of D’Courtney Cartel.  Reich's
firm, Monarch Industries, is on the verge of
bankruptcy, and he feels rebuffed in his attempts
to propose a merger.   In anger and desperation, he
decides to kill D’Courtney.

Okay, Bester doesn’t go in for subtlety—already
we have a Reich and Monarch going up against a
Cartel.  You’ll hardly be surprised to learn that
the hero detective in this book is named Lincoln
—Lincoln Powell, a Class 1 Esper and Prefect of
the Psychotic Division of the police.  In case some
readers miss the presidential allusion, Lincoln
sometimes falls into a habit of telling outlandish
tall tales—taking on an alternate persona, one that
the policeman himself calls "Dishonest Abe."

Mr. Reich needs some expert help if he is to plan
and execute a murder without coming to Powell's
attention. He enlists the support of Gus Tate,
another Class 1 Esper and psychiatrist who is a
renegade among the mind-readers. When he is
around Reich, Tate can block the efforts of other
Espers, and can also snoop around in surrounding
minds in order to assist in the plotting and
execution of the crime.  But Reich also needs
some way of stopping the brain peepers when
Tate is not on hand—and here he relies on an
inane musical jingle, one of those maddening tunes
you can’t get out of your head.

Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun….

Bester no doubt wanted lyrics whose sheer inanity
would keep mind-readers at bay.  Too bad he
didn't know about Rebecca Black’s
"Friday"

With these peculiar supports, Reich is prepared to
kill his adversary. He makes his move at a
fashionable party, but the assault is observed by
a young woman, D'Courtney’s daughter, who
runs away from the scene of the crime. Now
Lincoln Powell and Ben Reich are caught up in a
race to find the missing eyewitness. The action is
enlivened by the some jive James Bond-ish
gadgetry—flash grenades that destroy the retinas
of unfortunate on-lookers, harmonic guns that
kill with soundwaves, etc.  

The book is zany, and moves ahead with the
brash momentum of a superhero comic book.
But Bester tries to impart some psychological
gravitas through generous doses of Freudian
concepts and plenty of psychiatric jargon. Even
the punishment for serious crimes draws on a
therapeutic worldview—instead of the electric
chair, the legal authorities of the year 2301 rely
on 'demolition,' in which the offender’s personality
and memories are extracted, leaving behind a
new substratum for healthy re-education. Indeed,
Bester’s original title for the story was
Demolition!,
and he only switched to
The Demolished Man at
the urging of editor
H.L. Gold.

Many readers will find this story maddening
and unsatisfying.  
Josh Wimmer has cited The
Demolished Man
as an evidence for why highbrow
literary types look down on sci-fi—not without
some justification. "Science fiction was ghettoized
for a long time because at first, it deserved to be,"
he argues, and compares the implausibility of
Bester's story with Ernest Hemingway’s
The Old
Man and the Sea
, which won the Pulitzer the same
year
The Demolished Man took the Hugo. The
comparison may be a bit unfair—Hemingway
never set a novel in the 24th century—but
even fans of Bester's work can hardly avoid
recognizing the slapdash quality that permeates
the novel.  Nor does the use of reheated
psychobabble serve as an adequate substitute for
real psychological depth in Bester’s characters.

No, this is not great literature. That said, the
madcap energy of this book can’t be denied. And
the concept itself of a man plotting the perfect
murder in an age when premeditated crimes have
been eradicated is a thought-provoking one. I’m
not surprised that, a few years later, Philip K. Dick
—and later Steven Spielberg—drew on a similar
concept for
Minority Report.  Bester never quite
freed himself from the pulp fiction and TV script
formulas that cast a long shadow over most genre
works of the era, but he was a master of these very
same recipes.  As a result, anyone wanting to
understand why action-packed genre tales had
such a large following during the middle decades
of the 20th century could hardly do better than to
make the acquaintance of this author and his most
famous novel.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
.
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Alfred Bester turned his back on the law at
an early age—dropping out of Columbia
Law School and embracing genre literature
in his mid-20s.  He won a
competition, which led to
the publication of his first
story, "The Broken Axiom"
in
Thrilling Wonder Stories in
1939.  During the 1940s,
Bester wrote for pulp fiction
periodicals, comic books and
newspaper comic strips, and
contributed story lines to
Superman, The Phantom, Mandrake the
Magician and the Green Lantern.  Bester is
believed be the originator of the
Green
Lantern's oath ("In brightest day, in
blackest night, no evil shall escape my
sight…" etc. etc. ). After World War II,
he earned a living as scriptwriter for radio
and later television. He is best known
today for his science fiction work from
the mid-1950s, especially
The Demolished
Man
, winner of the first Hugo Award for
best novel in 1953, and T
he Stars My
Destination
(1956).   He published little
fiction in later years, and at his death in
1987 he left all of his possessions to his
bartender.
ROGUES GALLERY:
ALFRED BESTER

Further Clues:

The First Hugo Winner Probably Deserves the Ghetto

Why Do Critics Still Sneer at Sci-Fi?

The Demolished Man reviewed by Todd Richmond

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