In Bester’s The Demolished Man, the twenty-fourth century is a place where humankind has risen from the destruction of a world war to create a largely crime-free society in which the scions of industry live a decadent existence. Because of “Espers”, a small but growing community of civic-minded telepaths, crimes are generally detected before they even occur. Nevertheless, powerful super-capitalist Ben Reich believes that he will only triumph against his rival D’Courtney by committing the first homicide in over seventy-five years. The prize for success will be complete control over the commerce of the solar system. The price of failure is Demolition.
The novel is largely a battle of wits between Reich, a non-Esper with more than enough ruthless cunning to make up for it, and police prefect Lincoln Powell, a clever and determined Esper of the 1st Class. Both are intriguing characters, and though Powell is clearly the white hat to Reich’s black, they each have their fundamental flaws and their strengths of character. Both are world-changers…and Reich’s increasing instability threatens the order of the world.
The most intriguing aspect of the novel is Bester’s portrayals of Esper society and ethics. These “peepers” belong to a powerful Esper’s Guild in which each member is sworn to the ethical use of their unique abilities. Those Espers that break their vows are ostracized…and for an Esper, complete isolation from the sensory information of telepathy can be maddening. In a more modern novel, the idea of telepaths intruding upon the senses or thoughts of others would be the subject of a dystopian work; here it is Ben Reich and his secretive, deceptive ways that are seen as the threat. It is his lack of openness that begins his walk toward Demolition.
Bester also uses language in interesting ways–especially for a novel of its time. In depicting the non-linear flights of thought into the senses of the Espers, he constructs word grids and visual puzzles. Through these, the reader gets a peek into the robust mental world of the telepath. Further, he often uses symbols to depict various syllables in names (e.g., @kins, &erson, Wyg&)…almost a precursor to the abbreviations made today in text-speak.
The book is not perfect. While interesting, Bester gives us only a hint of the full spectrum of his characters. Powell has a darker, more mischievous side he calls “Dishonest Abe” and there are references to a time where he apparently “stole the weather”–but that is all we know. We see Ben Reich on his descent into self-destruction but it is largely a one-dimensional view. Further, the final explanation for Reich’s behavior is slightly contrived and not nearly as convincing as it should be. Finally, the relationship that develops between Powell and D’Courtney’s daughter Barbara is, in a word, creepy.
The Demolished Man deservedly won the first Hugo award in 1953. With its intriguing view of the future, original use of language, and first-rate exploration of psychological landscapes, the work stands up today as a novel both entertaining and intellectually challenging…the way all science fiction should be.