The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (1953)
‘It’s lucky for the world I’m willing to stop at one murder. Together we could rape the universe’
Ben Reich, head of Monarch Utilities and resources, risks everything in a last-ditch take-over bid for the massive D’Courtney Cartel. When it fails only murder, blackmail and bribery are left.
So Reich sets himself against the whole sophisticated paraphernalia of twenty-fourth century crime fighting, conducted by the peepers – trained telepathists with a strict code of ethics. And even if he can find a bent peeper, there’s still the ultimate penalty if he fails – Demolition.
Voted Outstanding Novel of the Year by the Eleventh World Science Fiction Congress.’
Blurb from the 1974 Penguin Paperback Edition
It is one of the great shames of Twentieth Century Science Fiction that Alfred Bester never wrote more and Asimov less. This startlingly innovative, iconoclastic and experimental work, Bester’s first novel, was in its own way the ‘Neuromancer’ of its day. On one level it is a murder mystery. Though very much in the style of TV’s ‘Columbo’ in that we, the readers, witness the murder, and from then on follow the investigation to bring the perpetrator to justice, or in this case, Demolition. Demolition involves having one’s personality erased and rebuilt without the fatal flaws. In a sense it is Death, since one retains no memory of one’s former life.
Bester portrays a future in which ‘peepers’ (i.e. telepaths) comprise about two percent of the population and Humanity has spread out to colonise the Solar System. Bester creates a rich, fabulous and detailed tapestry of society in the Twenty Fourth Century. It is in some ways decadent, but far more credible and sophisticated than can be found in the work of some of his contemporaries.
The same can also be said for the characterisation since even the minor characters in this fast-paced psi-thriller seem fully-rounded individuals, if a little grotesque and eccentric. There is for instance, the madam and clairvoyant, Chooka Frood, who lives in an ‘eviscerated ceramics plant’ in which there was an explosion long ago. Her living space is a riot of colours, glazed onto the structure of the building.
There is Keno Quizzard, the blind red-bearded gangster and Duffy Wyg&, (Bester is at his best when he wittily plays with text and punctuation marks, creating such evolved names as @kins and S&nderson) a seductive composer of advertising jingles.
Ben Reich, the murderer and central figure has evolved an ingenious plot to murder his business rival D’Courtney, a man who is trying to destroy him professionally. He enlists the help of Gus Tate, a high-level telepath and psychiatrist, to provide him with access to his victim and to cover his tracks.
The murder however, is witnessed by D’Courtney’s daughter who subsequently disappears.
It is up to Lincoln Powell, telepath, pathological liar and police-chief, to search for clues and find enough evidence to convict Reich and have him ‘demolished’.
Powell’s investigations take him from one exotic location to the next at a frenetic pace, where fabulous details seem to be thrown effortlessly into the text while Bester experiments with text and layout in order to create some visual approximation of the experience of a telepathic interchange between several people.
The settings include a romantic and implausible (but acceptable within the context of the work) Venus, and Spaceland, a flat space-habitat covered with atmospheric domes, which has become a kind of giant Theme Park in space.
Another interesting component of this work is Bester’s interest in psychology and the structure of the mind. Reich is haunted from the first page by nightmares from which he awakens screaming which feature ‘The Man With No Face’. At first, Reich believes that this is a representation of his business rival, D’Courtney, but after making a deal with the psychiatrist Tate, who has read his mind, he is told that even if he does kill D’Courtney, the dreams will continue, as The Man With No Face is not D’Courtney.
Intrigue upon intrigue follows as Reich feverishly attempts to cover the tracks of his murder before Powell can discover the evidence to convict him.
Reich ultimately turns out to have developed some form of schizophrenic personality disorder, but one of such latent psi magnitude that it is capable of rewriting reality. The Man With No Face is merely another side of Reich’s psyche, which performs actions of which Reich is unaware.
It transpires that D’Courtney is in actuality Reich’s father, and that Reich’s motive – unbeknown even to half of Reich’s mind – was not business-related but anger at his father for having abandoned him.
Mirroring this Father/Son conflict is the strange relationship between Powell and Barbara, D’Courtney’s daughter, traumatised into catatonia by the sight of her Father’s murder. Powell elects to protect Barbara (a material witness) who undergoes therapy mirroring Reich’s ultimate demolition, in that she is regressed to a mental level of an infant and re-educated to adulthood over a period of weeks. Powell adopts a Father/Lover role during which time he ‘penetrates’ Barbara’s mind, ostensibly to try and determine her true memories of her Father’s murder.