Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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
of mind-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 state of 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
outlandish tall 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 he didn'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 to find 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
kill with soundwaves, etc.  

The book is zany, and moves ahead with the

brash momentum of a superhero comic book.  
But Bester 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 of Bester's story with Ernest
Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which
won the Pulitzer the same year The Demolished
Man took the Hugo.  The comparison may be a
bit unfair—Hemingway never set a novel in the
24th century—but even fans 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’m not surprised that, a few years later,
Philip K. Dick—and later Steven Spielberg—drew
on a similar concept for Minority Report.  Bester never
quite
freed 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 had such a large following
during the middle decades of the 20th century
could hardly do better than to make the
acquaintance of this author and his most famous
novel.
Click on image to purchase
conceptual fiction
The Demolished Man
By Alfred Bester
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



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