Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man

Dave

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I've just picked this up to read, no idea if I'll like it. It was the first ever Hugo Award winner, so maybe I'll start working my way through them all. ;)

My first thoughts from reading the cover is a similarity with 'The Minority Report'. I'll tell you more when I'm finished, but with the little time I get to read, that may be some time yet.
 

rde

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Strange thing about Bester; despite Martin Prince's endorsement, he's only written two good books. The rest are terrible. However, everyone (and I mean everyone) should read The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!)
 

Dave

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This book has nothing to do with Philip K Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’. It is a murder mystery in part, although the detective, Lincoln Powell, Prefect of the Psychotic Division, solves the murder immediately, but still has to prove it, and has no idea of the scope of the real crime. Just as ‘The Minority Report’ concerns Precognosis, and Larry Niven’s ‘Long ARM of Gill Hamilton’ concerns Telekinesis, this is really a book about Telepathy and the mind, the crime and detective part being secondary. The Espers have Extra Sensory Perception – they can read minds.

It introduces two new words:

N. peeper
V. to peep

This Twenty-Fourth Century society has a hierarchical structure based upon telepathic ability, with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class Espers. The police have 1st class Espers, top companies have 1st class Espers as accountants and personnel chiefs, and newspapers have peeper reporters too.

Peepers have been so effective in law enforcement that no one has successfully committed an act of premeditated murder in almost 80 years. The Guild of Espers has it’s own moral code, the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath , called the Esper Pledge . Even though peepers can read the minds of unwilling individuals, they are forbidden to do so outside of a court of law. If you break the code you are cut-off from telepathic contact with your peers.

The society’s wealthy elite is almost decadent, doing little except attending ESP cocktail parties, and unusual plastic surgery is possible, but only touched upon. The impression is given of a less prosperous underworld, the kind that would pay to visit Madame Chooka Frood’s Rainbow House on the “hazardous†Bastion West Side, but we don’t learn any more about those citizens. There are also some who are unhappy with the status quo, both an anti-esper smear campaign, and also League of Esper Patriots. Although the Telepaths have powerful positions, they are still a minority. There are laws to encourage true breeding among the 1st class Espers.

It is set in a world that has suffered two atomic world wars, but has been rebuilt with skyscrapers and high-level skyway bridges that cut through buildings. Life expectancy is 100+ years. Venus, Mars, Ganymede, Io, Titan, Triton and Callisto are all colonised and asteroids such a Skyland are covered with transparent domes. Travel is by vertical take-off craft known as Jumpers, or by air-shuttle through horizontal and vertical tubes known as the ‘Pneumatiqe’.

I always find it fun to see where old views of the future have diverged from the real world, and having been written in 1954, there is plenty of scope for this here, although it is not quite as bad as it could be, since the story focuses more on the effects of the Espers on their society, rather than it’s technology. I probably pick up on things other people would ignore.

Everyone thought that before the end of the 20th century we would be hopping into Rocket ships to the planets on a daily basis, and making recordings onto piezoelectric crystals. These were the days before astronauts began “sitting in a tin canâ€, and Compact Discs were invented. So, nothing unusual there.

I thought that the army of secretaries and sub-secretaries at Monarch, and its file vaults containing rack after rack of printed information was amusing. Punched Card reading computers that print out using mechanical typewriters were funny, and Forensic Evidence has come along way since then. There should never have been any question of implicating Ben Reich in the murder.

But, what struck me most was that they took Rocket ships around the solar system in a matter of hours, while Ben Reich had to wait a whole day for a reply to his message. No emails or mobile phones, of course, (though they do have a visigraph and public visiphones on the streets) but why no equivalent of a motorcycle courier either? Then there were the ancient codes he was using, the kind that could easily be broken even in the 1940’s during WWII.

The coding error bugged me quite a bit, until I found that it was an integral part of the plot. There are a number of other word games and puzzles in the book, such as the ‘Man with No Face’, who terrorizes Reich’s nightmares.

Reich is a business mogul who has had a 10-year struggle with his competitor.

Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
It is the pace, the staccato style, the passion and the pyrotechnics that make the novel extraordinary. The future society is evoked in marvellously hard-edged details; the hero is a driven, resourceful man whose obsessions are examined in Freudian terms that might seem too glib if they were given straight, but are evoked with the same New Yorker’s painful, ironic scepticism that informs the whole novel.
Is Ben Reich really the hero here? Surely, Lincoln Powell is the cool sleuth who takes the risks, gets the girl and ultimately solves the case. Reich is his powerful, rich and unlikeable opponent in the game of cat and mouse, who bribes and murders his way to the top of the corporate ladder.

The book cover says:
Ben Reich heads a huge 24th century business empire [Monarch Utilities and Resources, Inc.], spanning the solar system. He is also an obsessed, driven man determined to murder a rival. [Craye D’Courtney of the D’Courtney Cartel on Mars] To avoid capture, in a society where murderers can be detected even before they commit their crime, is the greatest challenge of his life.
That’s not even half of the story though, and I ought to go into spoiler mode to discuss it.
The ‘Harmonic Gun’ was interesting: A weapon designed to produce vibrations that create shattering harmonics by transmittal through the ground. All objects in contact with the ground, including human beings, are vibrated into fragments or pulp, depending on composition.
It surprised and amused me that ‘Old Man Mose’ turned out to be an Artificial Intelligence, it was clever the way Powell spoke about him as he would some old-fashioned, critical, hard-to-please, cold-blooded, cynical boss, when it was really a mechanical prosecutor, judge and jury.
‘Old Man Mose’, or the Mosaic Multiplex Prosecution computer, initially clears Reich because Powell is unable to prove a motive, only the opportunity and the method. I didn’t like the idea of them having to use an AI to solve cases, but ‘Old Man Mose’ had the correct motive all along.

The Guild Council decides that Reich needs to be demolished anyway, and begins a ‘Mass Carthexis Measure’ with Powell as the human canal for the capitalised latent energy of every member of the Guild. The way Reich’s world is slowly destroyed is very clever, taken apart piece by piece. People rave about the film ‘The Matrix’, and how groundbreaking it was, yet this book is almost 50 years old, and has essentially the same idea. I see now why it was such an inspiration to both the SF new wave of the 1960’s, and the cyberpunk movement of the 1980’s.

When even space and time itself no longer exist, then Reich is able to face the ‘Man with No Face’, his own conscience.

Big spoilers:
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Oh! And Craye D’Courtney was Reich’s father, and Barbara D’Courtney is his half-sister as well as being a latent esper. And Demolition itself is the societies alternative to Capital Punishment, which results in a rebirth of the criminal rather than death.

I found the ending disappointing, and the melodrama could be cut out for me. The Freudian psychobabble is probably over the top; apparently it was the height of fashion in 1950’s SF. But, I would still recommend it, and it dates pretty well.
 

BAYLOR

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Strange thing about Bester; despite Martin Prince's endorsement, he's only written two good books. The rest are terrible. However, everyone (and I mean everyone) should read The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!)
The Computer Connection is a pretty good book.:)
 

BAYLOR

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The Demolished man certainly had a bit of an influence on the tv show Babylon 5. :)
 

BAYLOR

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There have been attempts to bring it to the big screen, so far , it' come to naught.
 
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