Tuesday, September 7, 2010

1953: The Demolished Man

From the back of The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester: "In 2301 A.D., guns are only museum pieces and benign telepaths sweep the minds of the populace to detect crimes before they happen. in 2301 A.D., homicide is virtually impossible - but one man is about that change that."

And one man does change that. It does not give anything away to know that Ben Reich, one of the two main characters of The Demolished Man, kills his intended target. That's not the point. This novel is about the journey and the ramifications far more then it is about the crime. The joy of this novel is reading how Reich pulls it off and how Lincoln Powell, a powerful Esper (telepathic) detective, tries to prove he did it. 

The cat and mouse game these two play is at the heart of the novel. Reich is not telepathic but he is one of the richest man in the world and uses everything at his disposal to outwit Powell, who has all the resources of the police and the powerful Guild of Espers, as well being a level 1 (the highest level) peeper, the slang term for Espers. 

What is most surprising about this book is how well it has aged. Science fiction, especially from the 1950s, has a habit of feeling very dated. At least that's what I expected. Most of my experience of 1950s science fiction is from movies and I would hard pressed to think of any of them that were good. They were full of rockets and squared jawed all American pilots fighting evil aliens or exploring the final frontier. The Demolished Man isn't like that at all. True, there are rockets and trips to other planets but they treated with no more awe then a character in a modern novel taking a flight to another city. When Powell asks when the next rocket to Venus leaves from Idlewood, he might as well have asked if he could catch the 2:30 flight to London from JFK. An interesting historical note there, JFK Airport in New York was known as Idlewood Airport until 1963. Maybe when it becomes a rocket port the name will change again. 

The two protagonist are hardly squared jawed all American boys either. Ben Reich is a rich amoral industrialist planning to murder his rival and Lincoln Powell is a telepathic cop with a bad habit of playing tricks on people (he calls this part of himself Dishonest Abe) and a strange father/romantic relationship with a woman who has mentally reverted into a baby.

Any science fiction novel, regardless of when it takes place, is a product of its time to some degree. The Demolished Man does not feel like a novel written in the 1953 with a few exceptions. The super computer used to predict the outcome of criminal cases is very antiqued by modern standards. It has a typer writer attached to it and gives answers are reams of paper. Also Venus is a completely habitable planet in this story rather then the unlivable hothouse we know it to be today. But these and a few other minor details hardly take away from the book. The culture in which the novel takes places feels familiar enough to immerse the reader but different enough to feel like another time. The characters use slang that doesn't feel manufactured or forced. The idea that some people are telepathic is perfectly integrated by the author. Bester even changes the flow of the typer to show how different telepathic communication is from regular conversation. 

I would easily recommend this to anyone looking for a good science fiction story. The ending is a little too spelled out for my taste but all and all it was a great read. 

Up next is They'd Rather Be Right aka The Forever Machine. It's a cool title but I have read it is supposed to be the worst book to win the Hugo. It is also very hard to find. Right now I am trying to get it from the special collections of a university library.