Imagine a world without murder. Then use it as the setting for a murder mystery.
That's the challenge Alfred Bester sets himself in his unconventional cult classic The Demolished Man, the 1953 novel that was the first winner of Hugo Award. The book is an oddity—half science fiction and half detective story, mixing in generous doses of the police procedural genre while antici- pating elements that would come to the fore in later cyberpunk lit. With its fast pace and campy atmospherics, the book also reminds us that Bester made his living writing for comic books, radio and television.
The Demolished Man is set in the world of the year 2301, when police have an easy time of it. No successful premeditated murder has been committed in 79 years. The existence of a cadre ofmind-readers—known as "Espers"—make it impossible to hide criminal intent from the authorities. A murderer will either be stopped before the crime is even committed, or apprehended immediately afterwards. In such a world, the clichéd phrase about "getting away with murder" has become a pure metaphor, describing a stateof affairs that could never occur in the real world.
In this environment, Ben Reich is caught up in a heated conflict with his business rival Craye D'Courtney, owner of D’Courtney Cartel. Reich's firm, Monarch Industries, is on the verge of bankruptcy, and he feels rebuffed in his attempts to propose a merger. In anger and desperation, he decides to kill D’Courtney.
Okay, Bester doesn’t go in for subtlety—already we have a Reich and Monarch going up against a Cartel. You’ll hardly be surprised to learn that the hero detective in this book is named Lincoln —Lincoln Powell, a Class 1 Esper and Prefect of the Psychotic Division of the police. In case some readers miss the presidential allusion, Lincoln sometimes falls into a habit of telling outlandishtall tales—taking on an alternate persona, one that the policeman himself calls "Dishonest Abe."
Mr. Reich needs some expert help if he is to plan and execute a murder without coming to Powell's attention. He enlists the support of Gus Tate, another Class 1 Esper and psychiatrist who is a renegade among the mind-readers. When he is around Reich, Tate can block the efforts of other Espers, and can also snoop around in surrounding minds in order to assist in the plotting and execution of the crime. But Reich also needs some way of stopping the brain peepers when Tate is not on hand—and here he relies on an inane musical jingle, one of those maddening tunes you can’t get out of your head.
Tenser, said the Tensor. Tenser, said the Tensor. Tension, apprehension, And dissension have begun….
Bester no doubt wanted lyrics whose sheer inanity would keep mind-readers at bay. Too bad hedidn't know about Rebecca Black’s "Friday"…
With these peculiar supports, Reich is prepared to kill his adversary. He makes his move at a fashionable party, but the assault is observed by a young woman, D'Courtney’s daughter, who runs away from the scene of the crime. Now Lincoln Powell and Ben Reich are caught up in a race tofind the missing eyewitness. The action is enlivened by the some jive James Bond-ish gadgetry—flash grenades that destroy the retinas of unfortunate on-lookers, harmonic guns that killwith soundwaves, etc.
The book is zany, and moves ahead with the brash momentum of a superhero comic book. ButBester tries to impart some psychological gravitas through generous doses of Freudian concepts and plenty of psychiatric jargon. Even the punishment for serious crimes draws on a therapeutic worldview—instead of the electric chair, the legal authorities of the year 2301 rely on 'demolition,'in which the offender’s personality and memories are extracted, leaving behind a new substratum for healthy re- education. Indeed, Bester’s original title for the story was Demolition!, and he only switched to The Demolished Man at the urging of editor H.L. Gold.
Many readers will find this story maddening and unsatisfying. Josh Wimmer has cited The Demolished Man as an evidence for why highbrow literary types look down on sci-fi—not without some justification. "Science fiction was ghettoized for a long time because at first, it deserved to be,"he argues, and compares the implausibility ofBester's story with Ernest Hemingway’s The OldMan and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer the same year The Demolished Man took the Hugo. The comparison may be a bit unfair—Hemingwaynever set a novel in the 24th century—but evenfans of Bester's work can hardly avoid recognizing the slapdash quality that permeates the novel. Nor does the use of reheated psychobabble serve as an adequate substitute for real psychological depth in Bester’s characters.
No, this is not great literature. That said, the madcap energy of this book can’t be denied. And the concept itself of a man plotting the perfect murder in an age when premeditated crimes have been eradicated is a thought-provoking one. I’mnot surprised that, a few years later, Philip K. Dick—and later Steven Spielberg—drew on a similar concept for Minority Report. Bester never quitefreed himself from the pulp fiction and TV script formulas that cast a long shadow over most genre works of the era, but he was a master of these very same recipes. As a result, anyone wanting to understand why action- packed genre tales hadsuch a large following during the middle decadesof the 20th century could hardly do better than to make the acquaintance of this author and his most famous novel.