Who Goes There?
My history with Alfred Bester is a bit complex. By all rights he should be one of my favorite SFF authors of the ’50s, given how strong his output from that period is. Bester started in the field in the late ’30s, and even submitted a few notable short works to John W. Campbell for Astounding and Unknown. Like a lot of authors during World War II, though, Bester would take a break from writing once the US joined the war effort—a break that lasted nearly a decade. From 1943 to 1949 we got jack shit from Bester, but once he returned in 1950, he quickly established himself as one of the leading voices of a new generation of authors, being more sophisticated, more experimental, and more cosmopolitan than what came before. He was perfect for Galaxy Science Fiction, H. L. Gold’s new magazine, which had claimed its throne with a speed and force unseen before or since in the field as the best SF magazine on the market.
While Bester’s short fiction, at its best, may stand as his top-to-bottom strongest work, he has become more known nowadays for his first two novels, both of them initially published in Galaxy. The Demolished Man, serialized from January to Marsh 1952, would later win the first ever Hugo for Best Novel, and no doubt contributed to Galaxy tying with Astounding for the Best Professional Magazine Hugo that year.
The January 1952 issue of Galaxy is freely available on the Archive. Since this is a serial you can guess where you’d be able to find it. If you’re curious about reading the book version, though (which I hear is a fair bit different from the magazine version), it’s very much in print from iBooks. You can also find the SF Masterworks paperback for The Demolished Man at a pretty good price. This is a somewhat famous novel, so you won’t have too hard a time finding it.
We start with a lengthy prologue section where we meet with a series of characters in rapid succession—none of whom, at least directly, play a big part in the story. For instance we’re told about the invention of anti-gravity, called Nulgee, by a scientist named Edward Turnbul, a man who would be sort of credited with the invention but, as we’re told, screwed out of the patent for it.
It doesn’t matter. As the narrator tells us:
Forget Turnbul. He is not your protagonist. If you identify with him, you will be lost in this story, as Turnbul is lost in the shifting pattern that produced the Demolished Man.
We’re told about quite a few other things, both about the background of this world and about the circumstances leading to the Demolished Man. Who’s the Demolished Man? Stay tuned. We get the invention of anti-gravity, exploration of other planets in the solar system, the invention of an advanced sensory-intensive form of entertainment called a Panty (that’s right, these things are called Pantys), the bubbling of a generations-long business rivalry between two families, Reich and D’Courtney.
Most importantly for understanding the world of The Demolished Man, we’re introduced to the emerging existence of telepaths, called Espers in this novel. Much like the telepaths of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan, the Espers are a genetic anomaly, making up a small portion of the human population and sustained by mating within the group; unlike van Vogt’s slans, who are viciously persecuted by normal humans, the Espers are highly sought after in human society. Indeed, telepathy plays at least as much a role in how this society functions as space flight—probably more so.
Part of me wonders if Bester wrote this novel in response to van Vogt’s; it has a few of the same ingredients, but in most other ways it reads like a foil to that earlier novel. The slans, and especially their relationship with normal human society, very much read like a precursor to X-Men, whereas Bester’s novel shows what the world might look like if such mutants were still a minority, but highly respected, allowed to be themselves out in the open without fear of persecution.
Speaking of out in the open, Bester more or less gives the whole game away in this opening section, thus making the magazine version of The Demolished Man rather hard to spoil. I say the magazine version because even a cursory glance at the book version reveals that pretty much the entirety of the opening section had been thrown in the trash between versions. Usually there are revisions between a novel’s serialization and its book publication, but usually this means the author added material between versions, rather than deleted. I have to assume this is because, as entertaining as the prologue is in parts, it also frontloads the text with exposition—so much exposition you feel like your head’s about to burst, and some of it is irrelevant anyway.
I also have to assume the change was made because the prologue makes the rest of the events too easy to predict, to the point where we get to do little guessing ourselves. Even before we’re given our protagonist’s name, we’re basically told that he’s doomed.
We’re given the murder weapon, an item used to set up the murder, and presumably the murderer himself, the Demolished Man. At the end of this protracted sequence we’re introduced to Ben Reich, said protagonist and the latest in the Reich family line of pirates and scoundrels, himself the head of Sacrament, a firm which rivals the D’Courtney Cartel. Reich is not a good guy; in fact he’s going to commit a murder by the end of the first part. How do we figure this?
For Ben Reich is The Demolished Man.
What does it mean to be Demolished? Stay tuned. But once we get past the prologue, the plot hits the ground running, and it’s a deceptively simple plot, though Bester plays quite a few tricks on us to make us think otherwise. The short of it is that Reich finds his business in a bind, Sacrament being smeared aggressively by the D’Courtney Cartel in the public eye, and Reich finds he must either enter a merging agreement with his rival or stop the D’Courtney Cartel by any means necessary.
An exchange with Craye D’Courtney, the head of the Cartel, goes nowhere. Reich is a desperate man. Even before he contemplates murder he seeks help regarding night terrors he’s been having, about what he calls “the Man With No Face,” an apparition which haunts him, and whose meaning Espers in Rich’s company know about but are unwilling to tell the man himself. Okay, if you’re an even slightly astute reader then you can guess what the Man With No Face represents, but that’s part of the fun for me. Everyone seems at least somewhat aware of what’s about to happen except for Reich, who, as we’re about to find out, is not as savvy as he thinks he is.
Since Sacrament is on the brink of collapse and since D’Courtney apparently refuses to back down or meet Reich halfway, you know what that means: the prick must die. Given the premise you might think we’re about to get an episode of Columbo, a sort of reverse whodunnit—and we sort of do, but there’s an important twist which complicates things.
How do you get away with murder in a society where, due to the nigh-omnipotence of telepaths, getting away with such a crime is virtually impossible?
This is made even trickier by the fact that there is not just one type of telepath; nay, there are three. Early on, in a scene that seems humorously aware of how redundant (to the characters) the exposition it’s dishing out is, Sacrament’s chief of personnel reminds Reich of how Espers are ranked.
“The Esper 3 can peep the conscious level of a mind. The 3rd can discover what a subject is thinking at the moment of thought. The 3rd is the lowest class of telepaths.”
As for the second rank of Espers:
“They are experts like myself who can penetrate beneath the conscious level of the mind to the preconscious. Most 2nds are in the professional class… physicians, lawyers, engineers, educators, economists, architects and so on.”
And finally the top-ranking Espers:
“The 1sts are capable of deep peeping, through the conscious and preconscious layers down to the unconscious, the lowest levels of the mind. Primordial basic desires and so forth. These Espers, of course, hold premium positions.”
Now I know what you’re thinking: “This is a bunch of Freudian nonsense.” I mean, it is. What the hell does “preconscious” even mean? Maybe only a 1st or 2nd Esper could tell me that. Despite the fact that it takes place a few centuries into the future, the world of The Demolished Man is very much steeped in slang and cultural expectations that would’ve been prevalent in the early ’50s, including people’s fixation on Freud and mommy complexes and all that. How much fun you have with this story will partly depend on how much leeway you’re willing to give the pseudoscience.
What holds up much better is the way in which Bester tries to convey to us what living as a telepath might look like, including Espers usually thinking to each other instead of talking out loud, and also what several conversations between Epsers happening at the same time might look like. Spoilers: it looks like word salad, or like something out of House of Leaves. The experimental typography must’ve blown people’s minds in 1952, not to mention the references to pornography, prostitution, and the general nastiness of the characters. Even today, the scene where a bunch of Espers are thinking to each other at a cocktail party comes off as experimental, and it’s a trick Bester would pull again (with arguably even greater success) in his next novel, The Stars My Destination.
What makes The Demolished Man different from other SF novels of the period is not in its narrative complexity (which isn’t all that complex), or its depth of characterization (which is often flamboyant but not terribly deep), but rather how fucking lurid and hardboiled it is. While the prominence of telepathy and ESP in general would have appealed to Campbell, the luridness and typographical experiments would never have been allowed in the pages of Astounding, and which conversely help demonstrate why Galaxy was such a big deal at the time.
You probably have a general outline in your head as to what happens in Part 1, and you’d probably be right, but even so, the murder is in the details. How exactly does Reich plan to carry out his killing, and how does he plan on getting away with it?
There Be Spoilers Here
Ironically, in order to get away with murder in a society where a whole class of people can read (or “peep,” they call it) the deepest desires of everyone else, Reich will need the help of one of these telepaths. It’s not easy. An Esper who acts as an accomplice to a crime risks getting thrown out of the Guild, and what the Guild says is law for Espers. Thankfully, nobody’s perfect, and theoretically anyone can be… persuaded to do certain things. And an Esper who has no choice but to help Reich can be very useful.
Reich has something stashed away, ready to be called upon for situations such as this. He goes home and cracks open his safe, taking out a notebook and an envelope; the envelope reads, in all caps, “TO BE OPENED IN CASE OF MURDER.” As for the notebook, it might just have an answer as to what Esper he could catch in his spider web.
Reich flipped through the pages of the notebook… ABDUCTION… ABORTION… ANARCHISTS… ARSONISTS… BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION (ALREADY)… BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION (POSSIBLE)… Under POSSIBLE, he found the names of fifty-seven prominent people. One of them was Augustus T8, Esper Medical Doctor 1. He nodded with satisfaction.
Certain Espers have numbers and symbols as part of their names. God knows why. Gus T8, Duffy Wyg&, Sam @kins, etc. Feels like a proto-cyberpunk touch, but then The Demolished Man kind of anticipates cyberpunk by a good thirty years already. The film noir narrative, the oppressive urban setting, the prevalence of technology, it’s got a dash of what William Gibson and Pat Cadigan would do later.
So Reich has his man; convincing, or rather blackmailing T8 will come later. Normally I would complain about characters being entirely good or entirely evil, but I do think there’s a talent to writing a deliciously despicable villain, which Reich is an example of. It’s not every day you have the villain also be the protagonist, especially in a ’50s SF story. Anyway, he opens the envelope, then, and we get (for me, anyway) one of the most memorable passages in Part 1, written by one of Reich’s ancestors.
To those who come after me:
The test of intellect is the refusal to belabor the obvious. If you have opened this letter, we already understand each other. I have prepared four general murder plans which may help you. I bequeath them to you as part of the Reich inheritance. They are only outlines. The details must be filled in by yourself as your time and necessity require.
But remember this: The essence of murder never changes. It is always the conflict of the killer against society with the victim as the prize. And the ABC of conflict with society never changes. Be audacious, be brave, be confident and you will not fail. Against these qualities society has no defense.
Signed Geoffrey Reich. Villainy runs in the family.
Much of Part 1 is set-up, with Reich recruiting T8, buying the murder weapon (or rather bullying for it) from Jerry Church, an expelled Esper who had previously worked for Reich and paid the price for it. Reich also buys a very old beat-up copy of a party book titled Let’s Play Party, which will be important for the climax of Part 1.
Indeed, the climax of Part 1, the (mostly human-attended) cocktail party where Reich seeks out D’Courtney with T8’s help, is also the best sequence thus far. It’s genuinely tense, as the big house where the party’s happening goes black as part of a game of Sardines and Reich has to find his way to where D’Courtney is hiding. I will say, however, that there is a passage during this sequence that struck me as one of those rare instances where Bester shits the bed in the prose department.
See, the hostess of the climactic party, Maria Beaumont, is a real upper class New York type; this whole novel radiates that energy, but Beaumont is perhaps the character most telling of when and where this novel would’ve been written. A slight recurring element with The Demolished Man so far is that Bester is simply not as good at characterizing his women as the men, writing them as bitchy, incredibly vain, and weirdly slutty for material that would’ve been published in a relatively classic pulp zine. I’m not sure if that last part is progressive or regressive, given the context. Normally female characters written at this time would have barely any agency, more focused on being wives than autonomous people, but Bester’s women are unavashedly thirsty for some action.
Take this decription of Beaumont, though, you’ll see what I mean.
Maria Beaumont clove through the waters, arms outstretched, eyes outstretched, bosom outstretched… her body transformed by pneumatic surgery into an exaggerated East Indian figure with puffed hips, puffed calves and puffed gilt breasts.
What do you mean by this, Alfred?
Still, that awkward description is counterbalanced by when Reich finds D’Courtney, being invisible both physically because of the darkness and mentally because he’s blocking possible Esper intrusion with a jingle he keeps repeating. (As an aside, using pop songs and commercial jingles to block out conscious thoughts Espers’ peeping is clever.)
We had heard, in a previous scene, that D’Courtney is sick—possibly dying, which raises the question of why Reich doesn’t just wait for the old man to kick the bucket. We also know by now, though, that Reich is not what you’d call a reasonable man. Still, the scene where Reich finds D’Courtney is shocking, deeply evocative in its imagery, and even reminiscent of the moment in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where Marlow meets the decrepit Kurtz.
Reich found himself in a spherical room that was the heart of a giant orchid. The walls were curling orchid petals, the pillars were stamens, the floor was a golden calyx; the chairs, tables and couches were orchid and gold. But the room was old… old… the petals faded and peeling, the golden tile floor ancient and the tessellations splitting. There was an old, old man stretched on the couch, musty and wilted, like a dried weed… like the dessication of a venomous mandrake root.
No, not even the misspelling of “desiccation” can ruin the moment. It’d be fair to say the novel has been “heightened” up to this point, but D’Courtney’s room being described as like a dying flower in conjunction with the man’s physical sickness comes as positively dreamlike—yet not necessarily running in contrast with everything else, which is knee-deep in Freudian lingo and symbolism. (As another aside, I was brutally reminded of how fucking awful the copy-editing for ’50s-era Galaxy was. That this magazine was hyped to hell and back despite having enough typos and misprints to make self-published authors blush is telling of the actual content’s quality.)
Despite D’Courtney’s protests, feebleness, and apparent denial of rejecting Reich’s request for a deal, the deed is done. For a split second it looks like Reich is about to execute his plan perfectly, only that there is one major problem: someone saw the killing.
A Step Farther Out
I do have to wonder why Bester trips over his own dick with Freudian psychology here; he didn’t exactly strike me as a Freudian type in his other stories. In fact, when Bester spoke once with Campbell and realized how fucking looney the latter was with his thoughts on ESP and Dianetics, he stopped contributing to Astounding. Not to say pseudoscience can’t be used in a compelling way for the sake of a story, as ESP plays a major part in The Demolished Man and largely informs its idiosyncrasies for the better, but the emphasis on Freud strikes me as both conspicuous and of-its-time.
I don’t want to say this novel is “dated,” because I think calling old SF dated is a worthless sentiment. Of course old SF is dated, this shit was written seventy years ago. Few things peeve me like readers dunking on classic works in the field because of their age, because let’s face it, everything is going show its age at some point. The real question is, how compelling is this thing in the current year? I would say it’s pretty good still. The pacing, once we get past the opening exposition dump, is lightning quick, and as is often true of novels from that time when paperback publishing hadn’t yet become in vogue for SF, it’s short; even if you don’t like it, you can’t be too mad about wasting your time on it.
Bester is an efficient writer, and while his economy combined with his artsy-fartsy sensibilities are demonstrated more succinctly with his short stories, he makes a good first impression at novel length with The Demolished Man. I feel like we’re just getting started with this, though; we haven’t even really met the not-Columbo who will inevitably bring Reich to justice. Because we know Reich has to fail, it’s just a question of how.
See you next time.