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

(Cover by Richard Arbib. Galaxy, March 1952.)

Who Goes There?

We’ve come to the final part of Alfred Bester’s debut novel, The Demolished Man. Bester arrived to novel-writing late, already being deep in his 30s when his debut was serialized, and truth be told, he wasn’t much of a novelist; he only wrote a handful of novels in his lifetime, and his first two remain by far the most famous. Like some of his contemporaries, (Theodore Sturgeon, C. M. Kornbluth), Bester hit a remarkable stride in the ’50s, starting with “Oddy and Id” in 1950 and ending with “The Pi Man” in 1959. I have to assume the broadening of the SF market in the early ’50s, namely the premieres of Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, coaxed Bester back to genre writing, after a near-decade-long break from the field.

Placing Coordinates

Do I really need to tell you? Part 3 of The Demolished Man was published in the March 1952 issue of Galaxy, and yes, it’s on the Archive.

What strikes me about this particular issue of Galaxy is that there are at least two stories here that not only come off stronger than the serial, but give a more accurate impression of what the newfangled magazine was all about. Yeah, I’m letting you know this early on that I wasn’t a big fan of the conclusion to Bester’s novel, but I would still recommend checking out the issue it appears in. We get a certified hood classic from Robert Heinlein with his novelette “The Year of the Jackpot” (the subject of one of Galaxy‘s first great covers imo) and we also get a pretty funny outing from Damon Knight with “Catch That Martian.” Early Galaxy is so good that it’s honestly hard to go wrong.

Enhancing Image

You may recall that last time on The Demolished Man, we get two twists for the price of one, one of them interesting, the other horrendous. When searching the depths of Barbara D’Courtney’s unconscious, once she’s taken into the safety of his home, Preston Powell discovers that not only are Barbara and Ben Reich related in some way (implicitly connected to the late Craye D’Courtney, whom Reich had murdered), but that Barbara (who, keep in mind, is consciously at the mental level of a toddler at this point) has a big crush on Powell—which Powell reciprocates.

The horror…

Much of Part 3 concerns Reich’s last-ditch attempt to evade Powell, who knows he had committed murder but can’t prove it objectively. To make a long story short, it’s not enough legally to have an Esper peep on a crime suspect’s deepest thoughts; presumably this is to prevent Espers from having too much power, but even so, the future society of the novel works such that it has become nigh-impossible to commit a crime and get away with it. Powell needs three things to bag Reich: motive, method, and opportunity. We know Reich was at Maria Beaumont’s party from the end of Part 1 (still the novel’s highlight imo), where Craye D’Courtney was hiding, and we know how he could’ve killed the old man.

The means are rather convoluted, but Reich had acquired an “ancient” 20th century pistol and removed the cartridges. Wouldn’t this mean Reich would be shooting blanks? Technically yes, but as Powell explains:

“With a powder charge, you can shoot an ounce of water with enough muzzle velocity to blow out the back of a head if you fire through the victim’s palate. That’s why Reich had to shoot through the mouth. That’s why Kr1/2t found that bit of gel and nothing else. The Projectile, of course, was gone.”

People forget (or don’t know) that even shooting blanks in an enclosed space can still be harmful; in the case of D’Courtney, firing the gun in his mouth was enough to kill him. Powell’s figured out the method.

The opportunity was easy enough to discern. The police team already knew Reich was at the party where D’Courtney had been killed, while everyone else was playing the Sardine game, and you may recall that in Part 2 Powell got a confession out of Gus T8 (Reich’s Esper accomplice) shortly before his death. Reich could’ve figured out where D’Courtney was by way of a peeper. There’s your opportunity.

The big problem Powell runs into is the motive. Now, I won’t give away the details in this section, but I’ll say that Reich’s motive for killing D’Courtney was not what we thought it was. Without a motive, they can’t connect Reich to the crime with objective evidence, and without that, Reich goes free. It looks like Reich is about to win, but Powell, being a top-level Esper (meaning he can fully read a person’s unconscious psyche), does have one last trick up his sleeve…

The cat-and-mouse game that took up much of Part 2 now comes to a head in the serial’s finale, and my feelings on it are quite mixed. The stuff with Powell and Reich is still great. Bester has a special talent for writing wiley and despicable characters, and few are more wiley or despicable than Ben Reich. Much like Gully Foyle, his marginally less evil counterpart in The Stars My Destination, Reich is relentless in his ruthlessness; there is nobody he won’t fuck over to get what he wants. Bester’s snappy style still retains its magic, too, with many passages being just dialogue exchanges with the bare minimum of description, yet rarely if ever is the reader lost in all this. Bester really is one of the writers of dialogue when it comes to ’50s SF.

When he’s good.

When he’s not, we get shit like this (yes it’s the Powell/Barbara subplot):

He kissed her forehead. “You’re growing up fast,” he smiled. “You were just baby-talking yesterday.”

“I’m growing up fast because you promised to wait for me.”


I wonder if Piers Anthony is a fan of this novel. Just a thought. Much like Reich himself, the novel is half angel and half louse, and I’m trying to separate one from the other. When it’s good, it’s pretty great; it’s witty, inventive, and as I’ll elaborate on in a bit, the ending is a fair bit thought-provoking. But when it’s not good… it’s almost unreadable. I get the impression that writing at novel-length forced Bester to give into his worst impulses—stuff he wouldn’t normally indulge in at shorter lengths. Some authors, especially in SF, benefit from more succinct writing (opinion, sure, but I really do think SF works best in the novella mode), and Bester is one of those. Part 1 of The Demolished Man shows the novel at its best partly because it focuses the most on its two best assets: Ben Reich, and the way Espers contribute to this future interplanetary society.

There Be Spoilers Here

The problem with Reich’s motive for killing D’Courtney is that it doesn’t make sense. In Part 1, Reich offers to merge his company with D’Courtney’s, but D’Courtney refuses; this turns out to not be true. Upon interrogating Reich about the rejection, the teams finds that Reich had misinterpreted D’Courtney’s response. Now why would Reich take D’Courtney’s acceptance as a rejection? We know now that D’Courtney, when confronted by his killer, was not lying; he really did accept Reich’s offer to merge their companies. Reich’s true motive will have to be uncovered with some weapons-grade mundfuckery, and that’s what Powell does at the climax of Part 3.

The climax of Part 3 is a wild ride that almost rivals the climax of Part 1, even anticipating the mind games Philip K. Dick would play on us with his later novels. Just when Reich is convinced he’s gotten away with murder, his world starts to shrink—literally. People and places Reich knows start to disappear, even including entire planets, and he fears he may be losing his mind (sort of right) or that Powell’s pulling an epic prank on him (absolutely right). Even the sun, for no reason, disappears, and nobody he asks even knows what the sun is anymore. Even confessing to the murder of D’Courtney out of desparation does not release him.

The police looked at each other in surprise. One of them drifted to a corner and picked up an old-fashioned hand phone: “Captain? Got a character here. Calls himself Ben Reich of Sacrament. Claims he killed a party named Craye D’Courtney last month.” After a pause, he grunted and hung up. “A nut,” he said.

“Listen—” Reich began.

“Is he alright?” the policeman asked the doctor.

“Just shaken a little.”

“Listen!” Reich shouted.

The policeman yanked him to his feet and propelled him toward the door of the station. “There ain’t no Preston Powell on the force. There ain’t no D’Courtney killing on the books. Now, out!” And he hurled Reich into the street.

It’s a lot of fun. Eventually the world shrinks to the point where there’s only Reich left—and the one thing that’s scared him since the beginning, the Man With No Face. As it turns out, the Man With No Face is a representation of Reich’s guilt, just as we’ve suspected this whole time, though not quite for the reasons one would’ve assumed. You see, Reich and Barbara are half-siblings; their father is Craye D’Courtney. Through some convoluted backstory we learn that the Reich and D’Courtney family trees intertwined at one point, and not only is Barbara old man D’Courtney’s secret child, but so is Reich. D’Courntey didn’t resist Reich because he felt immense guilt about never acknowledging Reich as his son, and Reich tricked himself into wanting to kill D’Courtney because of some… Oedipal… thing…

So Reich is finished; it almost cost Powell his life, but it was worth it. Only at the very end do we find out what Demolition means, and it’s basically a memory wipe. The society of the novel hasn’t implemented the death penalty in decades, and correctly they regard such a practice as barbaric. Reich lives, in some way, but from now on he will be effectivelybecome a different person—the louse having been separated from the angel, or maybe the other way around. The novel makes an argument regarding criminals that I don’t think I’ve heard before, which is that someone who goes against societal norms must be at least of some value, therefore it’d be a waste to execute that person. It’s a curious argument against the death penalty, and I have to wonder how readers circa 1952 would’ve taken it.

A Step Farther Out

The Demolished Man could just as easily be titled The Diminishing Returns. Not to say it goes downhill exactly, but Part 2 introduces a certain subplot that I would consider the opposite of great; by Part 3 this same subplot was driving me up the fucking wall. I’m not even sure if the “romance” between Powell and Barbara is a product of the novel’s time as it is a quirk of what seems to be Bester’s actual honest-to-goodness worldview; he really did seem to believe in the legitimacy of Freudian psychology. Not to say Freud didn’t do much to advance how we as a species try to understand our own minds, our own desires, and so on, but The Demolished Man may be the most obnoxiously Freudian novel in existence, ultimately much to its detriment. I can see why, between Bester’s first two novels, The Stars My Destination has become the more popular one; the truth is that it holds up better to scrutiny.

I have yet to read the book version of The Demolished Man, but from what I’ve heard it might actually be an improvement over the serialized version, which doesn’t happen too often. Usually the differences between a novel’s serial run and its book incarnation are negligible, but Bester apparently revised his novel to a substantial degree between versions. The result is (from what I’ve heard anyway) a short novel that was made even more concise, even cutting out some of the stuff between Powell and Barbara that makes me feel all shitty inside. Even so, the serial is worth reading; historically it’s nothing short of essential, of course, but it’s still an ultimately statisfying experience, made more palpable by being split into smaller chunks.

Well, the next serial I cover is also something I’ve not read before, despite it being by one of my favorite authors, and like The Demolished Man it also won a Hugo—a Retro Hugo.

See you next time.


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