Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man became the first Hugo winner in 1953. Originally serialized in 1951, the novel appeared during the golden 1950s, in the midst of the baby boom, and at the dawning of the age of the expert. In the introduction to the 1996 Vintage edition (which I read), fellow sci-fi author Harry Harrison quickly synopsizes the book with a heavy focus on the capitalist structure of Bester’s future. But it’s not the economics that drive this novel. Instead it is a deepening nervousness about the power of the emerging field of personal psychoanalysis that is represented by the Espers, a large group of human beings who have evolved the power of ESP or mind-reading. In The Demolished Man, the Espers, and by extension pyschoanalists and psychoanalysis, are the most fearful characters, for it is these entities that are able to look within us and show us our true selves, and it is our true selves that we fear the most. For Bester, our true selves are what destroy us.
Skimming over a summary of The Demolished Man, one can’t help but notice similarities to Philip K. Dick’s posthumously famous short story, “The Minority Report.” Both stories feature a society in which murder has been rendered impossible thanks to the emergence of psychics capable of reading minds and predicting murders before they happen. In Dick’s world, his “precogs” have been co-opted by the government and are systemically used by the police department to stop murder through preemptive arrests. In The Demolished Man, Espers make up the population at all levels and work in concert to prevent murder through dissuasion – there’s no point in committing because the psychic population will detect your guilt. Interestingly, even when Espers detect guilt through ESP, they are still obliged to provide non-psychic evidence to an objective computer that determines guilt. The burden of proof still depends on factors outside of the psychic mind, demonstrating Bester’s unwillingness to side with the Espers in the dual society of normal and psychic humans that he’s created.
There are other, major differences between Dick’s story and Bester’s book, the most important one possibly being that The Demolished Man is actually good. “The Minority Report” is a meditation on the ethics of finding a man guilt of a crime he hasn’t yet committed based on non-existent evidence, an interesting premise that is actually better executed in Steven Spielberg’s film adaption than it is in Dick’s noirish source material (Dick wrote a LOT of short stories and books; they couldn’t all be winners). Conversely, Bester’s novel is not a meditation on the ethics of utilizing a pre-emptive criminal system – Bester’s system is not simply preemptive. Instead, Bester uses the scenario of a murder successfully committed and the subsequent race to prove the guilt of the killer to explore not only how a society built out of psychics might function, but the ways in which we hide from ourselves, the lengths we will go to do it, and what it takes to make us confront who we truly are.
Ben Reich, one of Bester’s dueling protagonists, is a non-psychic CEO at the head of a solar-system spanning megacorporation. Plagued by nightmares of The Man with No Face. Reich is falling apart at the seams because his company is about to be absorbed by a corporation owned by his rival, D’Courtney. As a last act of desperation, Reich suggests a merger to D’Courtney, but when he thinks the offer has been refused he comes to the conclusion that the only way for him and his corporation to survive is to kill his rival in cold blood.
As in Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station, Bester’s novel spends a lot of time meditating on what it means to be a Man. Both Simak and Bester conclude that, on some level, violence is inherently part of Man’s nature. Writing in the early 1950s, Bester had just survived WWII and was now living under the long nuclear shadow of the Cold War, which most likely colored his meditation on the intrinsic nature of violence in man’s psyche. Ben Reich is living in a society where violence has been eradicated thanks to the Espers, but he is still driven to kill. Further, his inherent instinct and drive for murder helps him to successfully circumvent detection and later capture. He is aided by a high-level Esper, who risks being cast out of Esper society if he is caught. This Esper acts in the name of greed, another trait that makes up Man, be he normal or psychic.
It seems impossible to describe in one review the nuance that colors Bester’s work. I haven’t even mentioned Lincoln Powell, Bester’s second protagonist and Reich’s nemesis. The police Lieutenant assigned to bringing Bester to justice, Powell is a high level Esper bent on catching his perpetrator. Though one of the most powerful Esper’s on Earth, Powell is repeatedly unable to find enough physical evidence to convince an objective computer that Reich is guilty of murdering D’Courtney.
What he does have is D’Courtney’s daughter, the only witness to the murder who has been thrown into psychosis through witnessing the violent act. Powell initiates a mental process that basically reboots Barbara, causing her to rapidly evolve from infant to grown woman in order to erase the trauma of watching her father be murdered without removing the memory. In the process he falls in love with her, which creates a very strange pedophiliac situation that definitely reminded me of many of the women in Philip K. Dick’s stories. Men’s need to infantilize their lovers and spurn more mature, capable woman is not uncommon for cultural works of these times. The insistence on infantalization and sexual dependency is surely linked to worries about what is means to be a Man during a time when gender roles within the family and society at large were very strictly defined.
At the end of the day, every character is forced to face their true self in order to find the peace or resolution they are searching for. Normally I’m all for revealing the twist in order to deconstruct it, but this time I think I’ll leave the identity of The Man with No Face a secret. The answer Reich finds does tie-in closely with that cult of experts rising to power in the 1950s. It also speaks to America’s increasing obsession with constructing the ideal family, and the way experts often blamed neurosis or abnormal behavior on defective family life. But, in this society, through psychoanalysis (all of which is done by Espers, by the way, because who better to psychoanalyze than a mind reader), every single person can be saved and reintroduced into society with all their good parts still intact, even if it means demolishing them first.
I’m not usually the biggest fan of police-type books, but The Demolished Man supersedes that literary convention, excellently combining the search for self with the search for a way to convict the killer. Even having finished the book, I’m still unsure if I’m supposed to be rooting for Powell or Reich, and Reich was a psychotic killer. Bester does a very good job of forcing his reader to empathize with both perspectives, speaking to the frightened, self-preserving, and violent aspects of ourselves, as well as the peaceful part of us that abhors violence and injustice at our very core. The reader is forced to reflect on their own reaction to Bester’s dueling protagonists, and, as in the best science fiction, we are left with no easy answers, only new questions we must ask about ourselves as we move throughout our present day world.