Adam's Reviews > The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
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Jul 31, 10

bookshelves: hugo-award-for-best-novel, science-fiction
Read from July 18 to 31, 2010

Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man was the first book to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I enjoyed it, but there are many ways in which it hasn't aged well. Bester's vision of a 24th-century earth in which a significant portion of the population can read minds is interesting, but not fully realized. There are three levels of mind readers, or "peepers." The third level are employed as security guards, beat cops, etc. They can read minds, but only the surface thoughts. If one were to sit at a bar and think, "I'm going to go home and kill my wife," they'd catch you. Second-level peepers can see much deeper, and first-level peepers can literally alter the reality of others' minds.

So when industrialist Ben Reich decides he must kill his business rival, Craye D'Courtney, he becomes the first human in a long, long time to successfully commit a premeditated murder. His plans are clever, up to a point. He employs a first-level peeper to run interference for him, and he gets a woman who works for him to compose what is literally the most catchy and annoying jingle song of all time so he can sing it in his head whenever he's near a peeper, so they won't really know what he's thinking.

The bulk of the novel is concerned with the cat and mouse game between Reich and police prefect Lincoln Powell, a first-level peeper. Most of this was enjoyable, despite Bester's sometimes irritating prose. He writes in a subjective, telegraphic style that was popular in the '50s, but that doesn't always work for science fiction, in which more things have to be described and explained to keep the reader engaged than in regular fiction. Bester writes in a loose, jazzy style, but there are too many wild things going on his imagined future that need to be more fully explicated for them to work. People in the book use slang like, "Don't warp your orbit, Mac," (this from a "jumper" cab driver) and characters have names like "Wyg&," "@tkins," and "1/4maine," but I'm not sure what stylistic tics like that ultimately add to the narrative.

The book's dated qualities can be part of the fun, depending on your tastes. Bester describes how New York's Pennsylvania Station, for reasons lost in the mists of time, was destroyed in the "late XXth century." This turned out to be prescient, but that's purely accidental. Most of Bester's future world is half baked. The social values are those of the pre-Mad Men era, and you can take a rocket to Venus from Idlewild (maybe they changed the name back in the XXIInd century when they discovered JFK was really a robot).
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