Speculative fiction works in no small part because of its basis in Socratic questioning. It is a simple exercise: Suppose “________”. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, first published in 1953 has both an interesting pedigree (this is the book that won the very first Hugo Award for best novel) and an interesting Socratic question: Suppose that telepathy exists in the world. This supposition leads to the catalyst question: In such a world, how does one get away with murder?
Overall, the story follows the tropes of a police procedural but not in the manner a modern audience is familiar with. The first part of the story deals squarely with introducing the would-be murderer, Ben Reich. Perspective is important in this novel, which delves into the thought patterns of everyone, as befitting a society where thoughts are available to be read by anyone with the talent to do so. A parallel can be drawn between Bester’s Esper society, with telepaths holding important positions in law enforcement, personal security, secretarial pools, and medicine and the dystopian vision of Big Brother from George Orwell’s classic 1984. After reading The Demolished Man, I could see the influence of this classic novel in both the sub-genre of cyberpunk (specifically the mega-corporations of Bester’s 24th century universe) and Babylon 5 (which utilized both Bester’s name for a prominent telepath character and the Psi Corp story element borrowing from the author’s Esper Guild creation).
Aside from some misconceptions about the viability of certain planets as settlement options (Venus being a particularly obvious point), the story is solid speculative writing. The futuristic setting would now seem old-hat to readers of the science fiction genre but it should be remembered that this story predates (and inspires) many of the tropes that are common to the genre today. Bester’s tale delves deeply into the miasma of human thought, using short sentence structure to give urgency to thoughts and creates a kaleidoscope of imagery that invades the mind at any moment. Bester’s treatment of female characters is not very flattering, leaving them mostly in the confines of damsels in distress, sex-kittens, or shrewish women.
A mind driven to madness is also a focus of Bester in this novel, with the character of Ben Reich serving as a futuristic version of Poe’s narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart. Like Poe’s ultimately recalcitrant murderer, Reich’s decision to end a life leads to both personal madness and Demolition, the ultimate punishment in this story’s society, which is spoken of fearfully throughout the novel but only revealed in the final pages. A police procedural would not be complete with a cop character, which is filled quite well by the character of Lincoln Powell. Once again, fans of police stories and similar sci-fi stories will think Powell is clichéd but that would be a mistake on the reader’s part. Powell can be pictured as a hard-boiled detective who drives a flying car rather than a beat-up jalopy. A sequence late in the novel illustrates perfectly the hunter/hunted relationship between Powell and Reich, who form a begrudging respect for one another as adversaries.
For any fan of stories dealing with telepathy, or stories that aren’t afraid of venturing into the Dali-esque landscapes of strange visions, The Demolished Man is a must-read. If you’re a solid fan of the science-fiction genre, this is an essential part of any collection.