Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Title: The Demolished Man
Author: Alfred Bester
Publisher: Millenium
Original Publication Date: March 1952
Pages: 250

“But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” (Hemingway, 1952)

The human spirit cannot be defeated, but it can be destroyed, in this case, the complete eradication of what you once were, the complete destruction of the psyche, the birth of The Demolished Man.

Awarded the first ever Hugo Awards in 1953,The Demolished Man is considered to have had an extensive impact to the genre that rippled through the ages especially in the cyberpunk generation. But 62 years after it first came out, reading it today felt worn-out and clichéd, I guess in the science fiction genre, it just got ‘old’.

An idea similarly grounded to that of Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report, The Demolished Man operates in a world where crime is but a concept thanks to Espers, individuals who are capable of ESP, which of course involves reception of information not gained through the recognized physical senses but is sensed with the mind.

No murder, designated as a triple AAA felony, has been committed in over 70 years since the latent capacity for ESP emerged, until a fatal game of Sardine was played in the Beaumont Mansion. The prime suspect, Ben Reich, is the owner of the company, Monarch, second only to the D’Courtney Cartel to its lucrativeness. The victim, Craye D’Courtney, the namesake and owner of the most profitable cartel, had his head blown off by an unknown weapon. Enter Lincoln Power, a 1st class Esper and Prefect of the Police Psychotic Division who investigates the historic murder case which inevitably leads him to a collision course and hunting expedition for the world-shaker Ben Reich. Voila! You have The Demolished Man.

I am arguably compelled to label this as a mystery, police, and investigative novel rather than a sci-fi book. Really, the plot is all about the investigation of the murder, the search for evidence, and the incarceration of the criminal. This is a mystery novel done the science fiction way.  But that aspect was actually the fun enjoyable part of the book. The morally challenged banters, the deceptive maneuverings, and the cunning and shrewd exchanges between Reich and Powell were exhilarating.

Of course, the concept of intent versus positive act in crimes was included in this book, albeit it was not played out as well or as extensively as was done in The Minority Report.

What I failed to appreciate however was how Bester chose to lay down his world building and science fiction elements, his style.

For example, the explanation of the varying levels of Esper classification was carried out in a rough unrealistic fashion.

“First, the background, Mr. Reich: There are approximately one hundred thousand (100,000) 3rd Class Espers in the Esper Guild. An Esper 3 can peep the conscious level of a mind---can discover what a subject is thinking at the moment of thought. A 3rd is the lowest class of telepath. Most of Monarch's security positions are held by 3rds. We employ over five hundred...”  (15)

The instance above plays out when Reich turns to one of his employees, but the facts therein stated are not the things an owner/CEO does not know when he runs and owns a company that employ Espers. What happens here is that Bester directly laid down the ideas thread bare, without any effort at subtly building his world. This instance is repeated again when he tried to connive with one of his Esper employees to which in response he gets this;

“You don't understand. We're born in the Guild. We live with the Guild. We die in the Guild. We have the right to elect Guild officers, and that's all. The Guild runs our professional lives. It trains us, grades us, sets ethical standards, and sees that we stick to them. It protects us by protecting the layman, the same as medical associations. We have the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. It's called the Esper Pledge. God help any of us if we break it... as I judge you're suggesting I should.”(19) 

The point is, these are things that are not introduced through a normal conversation, they made certain characters stupid and seemingly oblivious to the operative facts of the world they were supposed to be living in.

Another aspect of Bester’s style that bothered me was how he transitioned between scenes in his story. They felt rough at times and I experienced this momentary feeling of displacement and surprise that I’m reading another unrelated scene.

It was okay (2.5 Stars), but I will not recommend it to people when they ask me about sci-fi books. Instead, why not read the Hyperion Cantos and have a science fiction experience of a lifetime. And please do forgive me for using Hemingway as attention step for this review. :)

This book form part of my HUGO AWARDS reading list.
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