The Hugo Project: 1953 – The Demolished Man

19 Nov

Welcome to the first official installment of the Hugo Project! I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Your captain has a severe head cold this week, so we may experience some turbulence as editing has been cursory at best. Please fasten your seat belts and keep all hands and legs inside the vehicle as we embark on sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!

The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester
serialized in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1951
published as a separate novel in 1953


In the future, premeditated crime is essentially impossible – with Espers (telepaths) monitoring the population, would-be criminals are detected before they even perform the act. Except Ben Reich, a business mogul, decides he needs to kill his rival, D’Courtney, and he’s just smart enough to pull it off. Enter Lincoln Powell, Police Prefect, who’s convinced that Reich murdered D’Courtney, but just can’t prove it to the satisfaction of Old Man Mose, the Prosecuting Computer. These two extraordinary men wage subtle war with each other on fields as small as planets and as large as the human mind, with one inevitable conclusion: Demolition.


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

I actually read this book twice, because it’s short enough and I liked it enough. It’s not perfect, but it’s good, and a lot less objectionable than a lot of things written around the same time, or even later. Certainly a good way to start off this insane project of mine.

The book is, at its heart, an examination of the human mind/soul/consciousness/being, viewed primarily through the lenses of the book’s two extraordinary protagonists: Lincoln Powell and Ben Reich. While I’m not sure I agree with Bester’s ultimate conclusion on the human condition – I don’t have quite so much faith in humanity – the exploration itself is fascinating.

“What are you really like? What are we both like?” Barbara D’Courtney asks Lincoln Powell (239). It’s an excellent question. Throughout the book, Ms. D’Courney, Powell, and Reich, have all been described as having two identities: for Barbara, her adult self and the child-like identity created by Espers to help her deal with the trauma of her father’s death; for Powell, himself and ‘Dishonest Abe,’ who tells outrageous lies with a perfectly straight face; and for Reich, himself and the mysterious ‘man with no face’ who haunts his dreams. These identities are further confused and conflated in the depths of Barbara’s mind as her child-self struggles to reintegrate the traumatic memories.

The idea of the individual as multiple people is also presented less concretely; Bester’s characterization of crime as a battle between man and society – or perhaps, base instincts and societal training – for example. At the end of the novel, Bester postulates that man’s true self is wholly loving, and that everything else is just a construct we build around ourselves, because (except for Espers) we can’t directly connect with one another.

It’s interesting that Bester ultimately decides that written/spoken language is a barrier, because he clearly enjoys playing with it himself. His unusual depiction of the way telepaths weave thoughts together in a group relies a great deal on a deep and humorous understanding of the English language. The narration and (spoken) dialog, too, are full of wonderfully self-conscious turns of phrase, not to mention the fun he has with shorthands – supporting characters include @kins, Wyg&, and 1/4maine.

Then again, when Bester needs an analogy to explain an exiled Esper’s need for contact with other telepaths, he chooses the Deaf community as his parallel. While many people today – and even more at the time Bester was writing – would say (wrongly) that the Deaf are less capable of communication than Hearing people, Bester instead places signed communication on an equal (if not superior) footing with verbal communication by equating it with Esper talk.

Which brings me around to the obligatory social equality review. As I mentioned at the beginning, The Demolished Man is much less objectionable on this front than many of its contemporaneous works. That being said, it is still a book about white men written by a white man in the 1950s.

Race: We can assume that almost all of the major characters are white. Points given for having “a young Negro” (91) Esper, and for the head of the Esper guild being T’sung H’sai, “a portly mandarin with a shaven skull” (93), ignoring the outdated racial monikers. Points deducted for the character of Chooka Frood (the only non-white major character), who comes across as a bad parody of a charlatan-Voodoo-priestess-madame-of-a-whorehouse.

Gender/Sexuality: We meet several women Espers, although they’re all Level 2 or 3, unlike Powell and the other major Esper characters, who are Level 1. While never overtly denigrated, the women in the book are treated with the usual carelessness; their inferiority/suitability primarily for domestic tasks/male sexual gratification is a foregone conclusion. There’s also an instance or two of conflation of violence with sexual passion, which is a theme I abhor. (I have no problems with the S&M community, but when all of the Ms are female and all of the Ss male…you can see the problem). No real mention of gender identity other than cis, or sexuality other than monogamous hetero (excepting a villain who molests Barbara and makes his wife watch, which is all clearly done for the squick effect.)

Disabled/Other-abled: Positive comparison of Deaf with Espers; not so positive insinuation that Deafness has been eradicated. Nothing else that I noticed.

In the end, I enjoyed the book a lot. If one can overlook the diversity issues (as one inevitably must, with books of this era), there is a great deal of fantastic language and humorous wordplay, as well as some interesting ideas about the nature of the human mind. I didn’t get into the characters of Reich and Powell because a) I’m not good enough for that and b) SPOILERS, but they’re both…complicated men with complicated minds. I have to admit I didn’t end up liking either one of them much, but they do make the story what it is.

It’s not world-shattering, but it is intriguing. It’s not a must-read, but it is recommended. I don’t have to have a copy, but I will probably buy it at some point.

OVERALL RANKING: 8 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).


All quotes and page numbers are from the First Vintage Books edition, published in 1996.

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Posted by on 19.11.2012 in Books


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