Christy's Reviews > The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
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's review
Jun 30, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction-and-fantasy, readinglist2-sf, science-fiction-institute-list
Read in June, 2008

** spoiler alert ** The Demolished Man is, for most of the book, a kind of science fictional Law & Order. There's a murder and then a hunt to catch the criminal. In this case, the reader's sympathies are with both the murderer and the cop who must catch him, but the big question remains: will he be caught and punished or will he get away with it? The twist is that all of this happens in a future world full of normal people and telepaths (known as Espers or peepers). There hasn't been a murder in 79 years because the impulse to murder has been impossible to hide from the peepers and, even when the last murders had been committed, the murderers were quickly caught because of the peepers.

In its emphasis on peepers and their relations to normal humans, the book raises questions about privacy and ethics. If you can see what someone else is thinking, is that ultimately a good thing or not? In what ways must the ethical code adapt to this new development in human ability? All of this speculation and philosophical questioning occurs under the surface of the murder narrative, however.

What makes this book really great is not the murder narrative (which is interesting and fun to read), nor is it these philosophical questions, however; what makes this book really great is the turn it takes in the end. Over the course of the book, the weight of attention and perspective shifts back and forth between Ben Reich (normal, murderer) and Lincoln Powell (peeper, cop) and with these shifts come shifts in sympathy on the part of the reader. The penultimate chapter places us in the psyche of Ben Reich as he is broken down by Powell. It is dark and frightening and prepares us to believe what Powell tells another normal:

"Be grateful you're not a peeper, sir. Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sicknesses . . . Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people. The world will be a wonderful place when everyone's a peeper and everyone's adjusted . . . But until then, be grateful you're blind" (237).

If what Ben has just experienced is typical, then this statement rings true. Why would we want to see those things? Why would we want such responsibility? But Powell acknowledges that this was just "some line" he gave this man, not true at all. By the end of the novel, the shift has been finalized and we are completely on the side of and in the mind of Powell. We are left with his version of the story, a version that allows us to redefine the process and purpose of demolition, what it means to be normal or a peeper, and the future of humanity.

As the threat of demolition has hung over Ben throughout the novel, as punishment for murdering his rival, the reader has been led, through Bester's manipulation of our own cultural knowledge and biases, to believe that this will mean the death of Ben, that this is something horrible to be avoided. Ben dreads it, after all, and demolition is certainly a violent image. The process of demolition involves the destruction of the psyche, but that's not all: "The horror lies in the fact that the consciousness is never lost; that as the psyche is wiped out, the mind is aware of its slow, backward death until at last it too disappears and awaits the rebirth. The mind bids an eternity of farewells; it mourns at an endless funeral" (241).

Frightening, but this description contains within it a seed of hope: rebirth. Horrified at the idea that "cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them" (242), the doctor in charge of Ben's demolition says, "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 and all you've got left are sheep" (242).

It is in this redefinition of demolition that the value of peeper society and ethics (as opposed to our contemporary values and ethics) becomes clear. Ben Reich will be rehabilitated, given a second chance to use his gifts, and peepers are not burdened by the awfulness of other people's souls after all, as Powell told the other man, but the ones who are truly free. As Powell says, finally, We see the truth you cannot see . . . That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we'll all be mind to mind and heart to heart . . ." (243). Bester uses this tale of murder, violence, and insanity to make an argument for the deepdown goodness of humanity, a goodness that it is possible to reach eventually. To reinforce this belief, he ends the novel with this statement of hope for the human race: "There has been joy. There will be joy again" (243).
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