I had never read this book before, nor indeed, anything by Alfred Bester. He’s perhaps best known for his 1956 novel, The Stars My Destination, a book I’ve heard a great deal about and would very much like to read someday. Unfortunately, its year of publication meant it would have fallen under the purview of the 1957 Hugo Awards, which were…weird, to say the least (we’ll get to that later, when I skip 1957). So what seems to be considered Bester’s seminal work does not appear on my list. That said, it’s not nothing to be the winner of the first Hugo for Best Novel, and The Demolished Man is a fascinating book that I highly enjoyed.
All I knew going in was the simplest version of the premise. In a futuristic New York containing a class of telepaths known as Espers, or peepers, ruthless corporate overlord Ben Reich tries to do what nobody has done in 79 years: commit murder. If the basics seem familiar (as they did to me), it’s probably because the general concept of “the perfect murder” has formed the foundation for a multitude of stories, in many different genres and media, about how to kill somebody without getting caught. Given the relative ubiquity of the idea, I was pretty sure I knew what I was in for, even if the inclusion of mind-readers was an interesting variant.
Much to my surprise, what I actually got was something almost entirely different. The murder doesn’t exactly go off without a hitch, but it is committed. Reich’s plan works. What’s more, it works at an early point in the story. Like most novels of these early years, The Demolished Man was originally a magazine serial, published in three parts. The murder takes place at the end of Part 1 (and in the original serial version, Part 1 was significantly longer). What’s more, Lincoln Powell, the Esper detective who arrives at the scene of the crime, discovers that Reich is the murderer almost immediately. So here we are, not even halfway through the book, and our main character has both successfully killed his target and been found out by the police. What else could there possibly be?
The remainder of the story is made possible by a brilliant conceit on Bester’s part. Yes, the peepers can read your mind, and yes, some of them work in law enforcement, but evidence gained from reading someone’s mind is not admissible in court. Powell knows Reich is the murderer, but he still has to be able to prove it. As such, the book transforms into a telepathic police procedural. The reader follows Powell in his efforts to amass the evidence necessary to convict Reich, and follows Reich is his efforts to tie up any and all loose ends before Powell can make use of them. I expected the tension driving the book to be the question of whether Reich’s plan would work and whether he could avoid detection, and that holds true in the beginning. But it turns out to be a smokescreen; the real tension comes from the battle between Reich and Powell, waged via a series of espionage and counter-espionage tactics enhanced by the fact that both sides have access to telepathy (Reich’s access coming from his own Esper accomplices).
The Demolished Man, as a result, removes itself from the world of mystery and police procedural and roots itself firmly in science fiction by making its primary sci-fi element, the Esper class and how it works in an imagined future society, the fulcrum of the book’s central conflict. Rather than being a police procedural dressed up in sci-fi trappings – the perfect murder story, but with telepaths – Bester designs his world so that there can be no story without the Espers. Powell could never have found Reich out if he wasn’t an Esper, but if Bester hadn’t given so much thought to how a telepathic class of citizens would actually function in society, the book would have ended with Powell’s initial discovery.
And while Bester doesn’t provide a whole lot of detail as to what the future of The Demolished Man really looks like, he does a fantastic job of fleshing out the idiosyncrasies of the Esper class. The peepers, who are normal people aside from their special abilities, represent about two percent of the population and hold required membership in the Esper Guild. Over the course of the book, we see the process the Guild uses to find latent Espers, which basically consists of having people show up and stand around while an Esper receptionist tries to talk to them telepathically. Those who pick up the message are escorted into the Guild for training, an exceedingly rare occurrence. Following their training, peepers typically take jobs in which their talents can be best put to use. They appear in the book most notably as psychologists, which makes sense, and of course, as police officers such as Powell and his partner, Jackson Beck. The Guild, however, takes almost all of the Espers’ earnings for itself, while providing housing and basic needs.
We also learn that the Guild forces Espers to marry other Espers, with the intent of increasing the peeper percentage of the population. Doing your part to advance the Esper species is a big deal; Powell, for example, is considered a favorite to take over as president of the Esper Guild, but is barred from the office until he marries. Even the current Guild president impatiently asks Powell when he’s going to tie the knot with someone so he can take the job. And not everybody finds this situation amiable. Early in the book, during a party thrown by Powell, an Esper shows up with his date, immediately after proposing. He clearly can’t stand his new fiance, but responds to Powell’s concerns about marrying someone he dislikes with the words, “Don’t be a romantic ass, Powell. We’ve got to marry peepers. I might as well settle for a pretty face.”
The primary reason for this man’s contempt for his wife-to-be, by the way, is that she is part of the lowest tier of peepers. Powell (along with Gus Tate, Reich’s accomplice) is an Esper 1, the most highly skilled class of telepaths. Somewhat less powerful, but more common, is the Esper 2, and the girl in question is an Esper 3, embarrassing herself at the party by accidentally using spoken words. It’s not entirely clear whether or not one can progress from a lower tier to a higher one, but the Espers we spend the most time with are generally locked into their status. The exception to this comes in the form of Espers who have been exiled from the Guild for breaking the rules. Reich’s other peeper accomplice, Jerry Church, is an Esper 2 , who was expelled years before for helping Reich with an act of corporate espionage. These exiled peepers are totally ostracized from Esper society, to the extent that we see Church standing outside Powell’s house while the party is taking place, telepathically eavesdropping in a desperate attempt to retain some part of his former community. Powell discovers Church and, in sympathy, hands him a drink and actually invites him inside, but the embittered Church throws the drink in Powell’s face and flees.
Thus we see the less appealing side of Esper culture. The Guild takes the money they earn, places restrictions on who they marry, and casts them aside if they step out of line. In this context, it makes absolute sense for there to be an underground organization called the League of Esper Patriots, which advocates Esper superiority, claims that Espers should control society by birthright, and is funded by Ben Reich. Gus Tate is the most prominent member of the League to appear in the book, and his association with them is a large part of his decision to help Reich commit murder.
There are other sci-fi aspects of Bester’s world that will be mentioned later – a medical process that reverts its subject to mental infancy, an entire planet devoted to the idea of the ultimate vacation, a computer known as Old Man Mose that serves as judge, jury, and executioner, and of course, Demolition, the most severe of punishments that Reich spends the majority of the book trying to avoid. But The Demolished Man lives and dies by the idea of the Espers, and the attention to detail used in crafting a world in which peepers exist is what makes Bester’s book truly special.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the primary characters of this story, and examine the fascinating and deeply flawed people who guide us through this fascinating and deeply flawed world.