Serial Review: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (Part 2/3)

(Cover by Richard Powers. Galaxy, February 1952.)

Who Goes There?

Alfred Bester is baaaaaack. He was early in the period of his career when he was at his best and most prolific (though in reality we only got two novels and little over a dozen short stories from him between 1950 and 1960), and nothing proved this more than the serialization of his debut novel The Demolished Man. This novel demonstrates what made Bester special at the time, and by extension what made Galaxy Science Fiction so different from its contemporaries. We’re talking about SF that’s witty, lurid, hardboiled, uncompromising, and generally more “mature” than what came before it. Interestingly, Bester would have his two novels from this era published in Galaxy while most of his short fiction would appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 of The Demolished Man appeared in the February 1952 issue of Galaxy. It’s on the Archive. If you REEEEEEALLY wanna read the book version (which I do hear is a fair bit different from the serial), you won’t have a hard time finding that at all.

Enhancing Image

How do you get away with murder in a society where a fraction of the populace can read not only your conscious thoughts but the darkest depths of your unconscious mind? Ben Reich has found a way—or at least he thinks he’s found a way.

Last time on The Demolished Man, Ben Reich has murdered Craye D’Courtney, his top business rival, with an “ancient” 20th century handgun that doesn’t leave a bullet hole or any markings. There is just one problem: there was a witness to the killing, and not only that, it’s D’Courtney’s secret daughter, Barbara. With Barbara having escaped the scene, Reich and his Esper accomplice Gus T8 are forced to remain at Maria Beaumont’s party so as to not look too suspicious. No matter, though, as soon police are called in—Esper police—with Police Prefect Preston Powell spearheading the invesitgation. It doesn’t take long for our villain protagonist and hero antagonist to start their game of cat and mouse.

A few things I want to make note of before I dive deeper into the plot, as Part 2 is not as long as the first installment, and I would say somehow the plot has become even more streamlined. Once The Demolished Man kicks into high gear it doesn’t stop. Now, I said in my review of Part 1 that certain Espers have symbols and Arabic numerals as part of their names, for reasons never given as far as I can tell. While I could at least see this arbitration as consistent, one of the mentioned characters, Duffy Wyg&, is not an Esper; this makes me wonder what the hell Bester could mean by this naming convention, and since apparently he drops the act for the book version, spelling characters’ names normally, I have to assume he did this for the serial version just to be QuIrKy.

I also brought up the weird Freudian symbolism that permeates the narrative, and indeed renders part of it incomprehensible otherwise, such as Reich’s recurring nightmares of the Man With No Face. I don’t even wanna get into how the Esper rankings work again, since they work on the basic assumption that the Freudian map of the human psyche (the ego, the id, etc.) is totally legitimate. A certain subplot involving Barbara D’Courtney fundamentally involves Freudian psychology in a way I won’t give away in this section, but needless to say I have some thoughts about it. It’s a story that only makes sense if you’re willing to be generous with its assumptions, and even then you might have a hard time after a certain point.

Part 2 is considerably more of a mixed bag than Part 1; while Part 1 has some pacing issues in the beginning, being frontloaded with exposition as it is, Part 2 develops the novel’s Freudian angle for the worse. I tend to be generous with this sort of thing, but there are certain passages here that make me wonder if they were ghostwritten by Robert Heinlein—not the good Heinlein either, but the embarrassing, somewhat creepy Heinlein. The creepiness is uncharacteristic even for ’50s SF; if anything it feels almost more like a byproduct of the late ’60s/early ’70s New Wave period. I have to assume H. L. Gold looked at the manuscript and thought, “Hmm, yes, this is very good indeed.” I don’t know about this one, chief.

It’s a shame, too, because the good parts of The Demolished Man are still really good, and now they have an extra good element added to the equation: the intense and totally not homoerotic rivalry between between Reich and Powell. It’s a classic case of the unstoppable force (Reich) against the immovable object (Powell), two psychotically determined men set to rip out each other’s throats. Powell knows, simply by contacting Sam Jordan, Reich’s lawyer, and by using a police lab map of the party-turned-crime-scene to trace Reich’s steps, that Reich is 99% likely to be the killer. However, Powell will need (thanks to convoluted legal restraints) more than just an Esper’s intuition, and Reich knows it.

When the two meet up during the investigation, there’s an intense butting of heads, yet Powell can’t help but admire Reich; it’s a curious dynamic. While obviously wanting Reich to be Demolished (we’re still not quite told what this means yet), Powell says this:

“You’re two men, Reich. One of them’s wonderful; the other’s rotten. If you were all killer, it wouldn’t be so bad. But there’s half louse and half saint in you, and that makes it worse.”

The game is afoot. The bulk of Part 2 is a chase wherein Reich and Powell try to find Barbara, the key witness, as without her Powell won’t be able to nab Reich, while Reich won’t be entirely sure of his own safety from Demolition. There is a remarkably fast-paced, if somewhat repetitive sequence where hero and villain play tricks on each other, Reich using T8’s powers and those of the criminal underworld to undermine Powell’s operation while Powell tries using T8 and Jerry Church (who you may remember as the exiled Esper who gave Reich the murder weapon) to push Reich into a corner. I would perhaps find this chase less repetitive if every scene didn’t end with each side going, “Well gosh dang it, where is that GURL?” This is an instance where Bester’s economy of description might have worked against him a bit.

We’re at the point where The Demolished Man truly has become an episode of Columbo, and Preston Powell is a fine not-Columbo—the big difference being that while he does play dumb in order to lure Reich into a false sense of security for a bit, his act is subtler than Columbo’s. Another big difference has less to do with Powell himself and more a certain subplot that I’ll be tearing apart discussing very soon. While we were technically introduced to Powell in Part 1, he only now actively takes a role in the story, and he sure is up to the task.

A shame all this other shit had to happen.

There Be Spoilers Here

Powell, T8, and Church are ambushed by Reich’s hired guns, with T8 dying in the process. It’s a curious scene in how it’s written, since not only is T8’s potential redemption cut short, but his death is described in a way that’s uncharacteristically indirect for Bester—and all the better for it. A rule of thumb with Part 2 at least is that when Powell is not with Barbara, things are going great. The problem is that the scenes where Powell is with Barbara make me hunger for death.

Basically, the trauma of seeing Reich killer old man D’Courtney caused Barbara’s conscious mind to regress to that of an infant; she barely even has any motor skills, never mind the ability to articulate. Powell has the idea to move Barbara from the hospital (which, to be fair, is a place where someone can easily kill or kidnap her) to his house, and that’s where things get weeeeird. A good portion of Part 2 is spent on Powell, along with fellow Esper Mary Noyes (who has a crush on Powell, which Powell is well aware of but refuses to reciprocate), helping Barbara “mature” from being mentally an infant to where she was just before the murder. It’s certainly a curious plot development, but it’s seriously hampered by some very off-color interactions Powell has with Barbara, and that’s before we get to the big twist involving her character.

The big twist is that whilst in the process of regaining her mental stability, as she “grows up” from infant to child, Barbara develops a crush on Powell—and no just any crush, noooo, no no no no. When peeping on Barbara, diving into the depths of her unconscious mind (or whatever the hell it’s called, I don’t care for it too much), Powell sees surreal images of the adult Barbara as well as the baby version of herself, and that’s where we find out how Barbara, in the wrecked state of her consciousness, sees Powell.

Get a load of this:

There was her picture of herself, pathetically caricatured, the blonde hair in strings, the dark eyes like blotches, the lovely figure drawn into flat, ungracious planes. It faded and the image of Powell-Powerful-Protective-Paternal rushed at him, torrentially destructive. The back of the head was D’Courtney’s face. He follows the Janus image down to a blazing channel of doubles, pairs, linkages and duplicates to—yes. Ben Reich and the caricature of Barbara, linked like Siamese twins. B linked to B. B & B. Benedictine & Brandy. Barbara & Ben.

That’s right, we’re venturing into Electra complex territory! In seeing Powell as her new father figure, connecting him with the deceased D’Courtney, Barbara now sees him not only as a daddy figure but as a Daddy figure, if you know what I mean. The implication of this final scene is also that Reich seems to be the subject of an Oedipus complex, being Barbara’s male counterpart in how he’s linked to D’Courtney’s murder, which is just—just—

It’s trash.

I’m trying to remember the last time I saw an otherwise good novel sink to such lows as this. Previously I was perplexed as to the Freudian angle Bester seemed keen on taking with this story, but now I’m deeply wary as to what he’s gonna do with it in the final installment. I said before that certain aspects of the plot will only make sense in a Freudian context, but now I think there are certain aspects here that can just be shot into the vacuum of space and the novel would be stronger for it. The worst part is that, assuming Part 2’s final revelation is followed up, corrupt business won’t be the “real” reason why Reich killed D’Courtney, as if we needed a “real” reason for it.

A Step Farther Out

I’m morbidly curious as to where The Demolished Man is going. Unless it pulls a 180 in the final installment, I can say with certainty The Stars My Destination will come out the better novel. Not that there aren’t problematic elements in Bester’s second novel, but I don’t remember anything as ridiculous as Barbara’s character development happening there. I would also argue the problematic parts of The Stars My Destination add to that novel’s sense of ruthlessness, but I can’t say the same for The Demolished Man. I’m still not sure why Bester, who was sharp-witted enough to make his novel a proto-cyberpunk reverse whodunnit in the first place, felt so compelled to root his story in Freudian psychology the way he did; I seriously doubt Gold requested the Freudian stuff.

This is a novel that, at least right now, is hard to call great. Part 1 was mostly pretty gripping, and I found myself hanging onto to pretty much every word of every passage, even if it dragged at first. With Part 2 I found myself wanting to get through the scenes with Barbara as fast as possible, and I simply didn’t find the scenes focusing on Reich to be as compelling as when we were almost completely tied to his perspective in Part 1. As short as this novel is, it’s already getting messy, but I’ll very well stick around for the end.

See you next time.


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