The Demolished Man, written in 1952 by Alfred Bester and winner of the very first Hugo Award, is a precursor to stories like Minority Report. It’s the first story on My List to feature psychic humans, in this case known as Espers, who can read your mind, making it impossible to hide any dubious thoughts. The story centers around Ben Reich, a no-nonsense titan of industry bent on dominating the corporate landscape. Let’s take a look at The Demolished Man.
Plot & Narration
As I mentioned above, The Demolished Man is a story about magnate Ben Reich, owner of Monarch Utilities & Resources. He is short-tempered, greedy, and set on having his way. In this case that means taking over his rival company, the D’Courtney Cartel, by any means necessary. By any means necessary means murdering the head of that company, Craye D’Courtney. The only problem is that Espers and their telepathic powers make it impossible to commit murder.
“There hasn’t been a successful premeditated murder in 79 years. Espers make it impossible to conceal intent before murder. Or, if Espers have been evaded before the murder, they make it impossible to conceal the guilt afterwards.”
So getting away with murder is impossible. But Ben Reich being Ben Reich, he goes for it anyway. The Demolished Man takes us through Reich’s plan, the dastardly deed, and the aftermath. It’s somewhat fast-paced, narrated in the third person, and written in a pretty interesting fashion, especially when Espers are speaking to each other.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Demolished Man is that the main character is really an asshole. He treats almost everyone like crap, yells and loses his temper constantly, and strong-arms others into getting his way. He is not a nice person.
It’s interesting to have such an unsympathetic main character. The prime rule of storytelling is that readers must sympathize and come to care for the main character so that they keep on reading. If they don’t care about the protagonist, the thinking goes, why would they continue reading?
It’s a valid point, of course. Makes sense. So it’s interesting that in a weird way, I did care about Ben Reich, but mostly because I wanted to find out if he gets away with it or not. This is a clever workaround to the protagonist problem, I think. It’s not so much about reading because you care about the protagonist and want to find out what happens to him or her, rather you’re simply just interested in what will happen because the premise itself is interesting: After 79 years, will Reich be the first to get away with premeditated murder?
When I first started reading this novel, I couldn’t help but compare it to Minority Report, which is on My List, and which I’ve already read once before. It would actually only be published four years after The Demolished Man. It seems that Philip K. Dick would have gotten his inspiration for Minority Report from The Demolished Man, but I have yet to confirm that theory.
There are three classes of Espers, colloquially known as Peepers. The first class is your general mind-reading; surface thoughts but nothing more. The second class can go a little deeper. And the third class of Espers can basically see into your soul, so deep can they read into your mind.
Of course, with the presence of Espers everywhere, as they are wholly integrated into society in various jobs and roles, mental blocks exist and can be practiced and taught in order to prevent an Esper from peeping you. Reich uses such a block throughout the story, which is basically an earworm, a songish verse that he keeps repeating over and over in his mind. This works in preventing many lower level Espers from getting into his brain.
Another interesting aspect of the Espers is that they belong to a Guild and must conform to an ethical code.
“Whatsoever mind I enter, there will I go for the benefit of man, refraining from all wrong-doing and corruption. Whatsoever thoughts I see or hear in the mind of man which ought not to be made known, I will keep silence thereon, counting such things to be as sacred as secrets.”
The Penal System
In the novel, it seems that rather than sending someone to jail, the penal system is more of a rehabilitative system. Since Espers can read your mind, and the most skilled Espers can peer right down into the depths of your psyche, they are capable of basically rebuilding your personality and removing those negative traits that made you want to commit crimes in the first place. At one point, two characters discuss the notion of capital punishment that was in vogue hundreds of years ago.
“’But it doesn’t make sense. If a man’s got the talent and guts to buck society, he’s obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough times and all you’ve got left are the sheep.”
‘I don’t know. Maybe in those days they wanted sheep.’”
So aside from being a sci-fi police procedural, The Demolished Man exhibits a bit of social commentary as well that really struck me. But also, we must ask whether breaking down one’s psyche in order to remold it is ethical or not? Does this aspect of the storyworld make The Demolished Man a dystopia?
Strengths & Weaknesses
The Demolished Man is a fast-paced, exciting read. I love the concept of an antagonistic protagonist and using the reader’s natural curiosity to propel the story forward in the absence of a sympathetic main character. Also, the representation of how Espers speak to each other is unique and makes for an even more interesting read.
I’m not sure how objective a weakness this is, but I found it a bit hard to follow who was speaking at some points due to the lack of dialogue tags. I think this is part in parcel of the style of writing prevalent in Bester’s day, a quick, snappy dialogue. Also, the prose and dialogue both include idioms and phrases that I think may have been popular ways of speaking back then, but that sometimes made it a bit difficult to follow what was being said.
My list not being comprehensive, I can’t say for sure if The Demolished Man is the first sci-fi story to outline telepathic powers to such an extent, but it is the first novel on my list to do so. (Though I, Robot did feature a telepathic robot.) It seems a precursor to later stories, such as Minority Report, where this ability to read people is used to prevent future crimes.
I recommend The Demolished Man if you’re looking for a fast-paced story that’s more akin to the type of crime novels we have today. Thinking about it now, it’s also the first story on my list to employ this kind of structure.
Well, that’s all for now.
On to book 20, Fahrenheit 451. Stay tuned!
Bester, Alfred. The Demolished Man. New York: Byron Preiss Visual Publications, 2013. Kindle Edition.
Author: Alfred Bester
Published: 1952; previously published as separate short stories.