Jo Walton has said that one of the reasons she, personally, has never re-read The Demolished Man is because she didn’t enjoy spending time with any of the characters, which…yeah, that kind of makes sense. Ben Reich, the demolished man in question, and certainly the central figure of the story if not its protagonist, starts out as a rage-fueled sociopath who seems to believe that killer instinct is an inherited trait, gains a bit of admiration from the reader as the book goes on in a “at least this psycho is a smart psycho” kind of way, briefly becomes sympathic (a little, maybe) toward the climax when Bester begins tipping his hand as to what’s really going on, but ends the story having been definitively characterized as a man so powerfully immoral that he threatens to derail the entire course of human evolution, and who must be stopped at all costs. Bester goes out of his way to drive home the point that Reich is, quite literally, the worst person in the world. His name alone tells that story; this book was published in 1952, and it’s pretty easy to see what the name “Reich” is referencing. Who wants to hang out with that guy?
So yes, spending time in Ben Reich’s head is certainly not the most pleasant experience. But what about Lincoln Powell, the police detective trying to catch Reich? We spend almost half the book with him, and he proves to be intelligent, compassionate, determined, respected, even romantic. He is the hero of the story, and like Reich’s surname, Lincoln’s first name is coded to that heroic association.
But several things about Powell are a bit unnerving. For one thing, there’s “Dishonest Abe,” which isn’t exactly a separate personality, but appears to be a strange mental dysfunction in Powell’s brain that causes him to frequently exaggerate the truth or even lie outright. Dishonest Abe doesn’t play much of a role in the overall story, but Powell’s inability to control it and frequent attempts to suppress it makes him seem slightly…off. Other Espers seem to know about Dishonest Age and largely take it in stride, though Powell does get teased by members of the police department about some incident in the past, thoroughly embarrassing him with the unexplained question, “Who stole the weather, Powell?”
Powell’s attitude toward marriage, and specifically toward two of the book’s female characters, also sends up a few red flags. At his party, he takes on an air of nobility when he defends the young Esper 3 woman to her contemptuous fiance, but it’s hard to feel good about that when we’ve just seen the way he treats Mary Noyes, an Esper who is clearly in love with him. Powell doesn’t return Noyes’ feelings, which is fine, but he uses those feelings to get her to do things for him, which is a little fucked up, even if it’s just asking her to make canapes for the party. And then there’s his relationship with Barbara D’Courtney, which we’ll get to in a moment and is probably the weirdest thing about the entire book.
Perhaps the hardest thing to reconcile, at least at first, is the sense of kinship that Powell feels toward Reich upon meeting him for the first time. There’s an interesting scene after the murder in which Powell essentially tells Reich he knows Reich did it, Reich essentially confirms that but adds that Powell will never be able to prove it, and after acknowledging that they might have been friends under other circumstances, they mutually agree to leave as enemies. This conversation seems utterly bizarre considering what we know of the two characters, and it doesn’t make sense until the book’s final scene, when we find out what Demolition actually is, and understand why Powell so desperately wanted to put Reich through that process.
Powell’s consistent character flaws are deliberate, and there’s a very good reason for it. When reading The Demolished Man, I was surprised to find myself actually rooting for Reich in his efforts to commit murder, and then to get away with it. Maybe I shouldn’t have been; after all, if Reich fails or gets caught, like everyone else in this society has, what’s the point of the story? Reich’s guiding “ABC” principle — be audacious, be brave, be confident — is the kind of philosophy that recalls the world’s greatest real-life assholes, but in this case, it’s nearly enough to turn Reich into an actual protagonist. It’s his audacity, bravery and confidence that drive the plot, and as humans, there is a part of us that wants to see people like this get one over on society’s rules.
On the other hand, it’s a weird feeling when you recognize that you’re actively pulling for a murderer to get off scot free. The oddities of Powell’s character help a lot with that, and when Bester finally reveals why it’s so important that Reich get caught, there was a moment when I hated myself for ever rooting for him at all. I think that’s the feeling Bester was going for as he set up Reich and Powell as opposing characters. It’s all well and good to cheer for the bad guy, but when the stakes get high enough, you quickly realize that playtime is over and it’s time for the good guy to win now, please and thank you.
Reich’s two Esper accomplices, Jerry Church and Dr. Augustus “Gus” Tate, aren’t given anywhere near the same level of characterization. Church, as discussed in the previous post, is an Esper who has been exiled from the Guild for his previous involvement with Reich. He’s a pawnbroker who provides Reich with the murder weapon, an “antique” gun. His only real character traits are contradictory: a bitter hatred for the Espers who cast him out, and a desperate desire to rejoin them. However, he exists in the story primarily to tell us about Reich. Through Church, we learn of Reich’s ruthlessness as a businessman, his willingness to use others for all they’re worth before abandoning them, and his influence — Church hates Reich for getting him excommunicated, but also believes Reich can get him back in the Guild.
Tate, on the other hand, tells us more about Powell and the Espers. He’s our main window into the discontent permeating peeper society, thanks to his membership in the League of Esper Patriots. Tate, like Church, believes in the promise of Reich’s influence, but whereas Church wants to use that influence to restore his Guild standing, Tate is much more ambitious. As an Esper 1, he becomes Reich’s most valuable ally, in exchange for Reich’s promise to help the League overthrow the Guild and install Tate as the president of a new Esper dictatorship. However, he is extremely nervous about being involved in Reich’s plan, and it doesn’t take long for Powell to find him and, in turn, for Tate to offer to turn evidence.
In this scene, Tate’s final in the book, Tate serves as Powell’s foil, a figure of cowardice and immorality against Powell’s unbreakable sense of justice. Powell even refuses to hear Tate’s evidence against Reich, because Reich was Tate’s patient, and the Esper Pledge — the rules the Guild demands all Espers follow — insists on the sanctity of doctor-patient confidentiality. But even as Tate is helping paint a picture of Powell as a towering figure of moral rightness, he’s also helping to reinforce Powell’s not-quite-right-ness. Because Powell standing up for the Esper Pledge is an act, with a carefully planned result. He does something similar at the end of the book, when he manipulates the mayor into feeling more positive toward Espers via an act of humility and sincerity. Thus, while Church helps to define Reich, Tate helps to define Powell.
Tate dies immediately after his conversation with Powell, when Reich attempts to have both of them, along with Church, assassinated. He is remembered as having possibly the best line of dialogue in the book, warning Reich to conceal his thoughts of killing D’Courtney: “For God’s sake! Be careful, man. You’re murder’s showing.”
The only other major characters in the story are D’Courtney, Reich’s financial rival and the man he murders, and D’Courtney’s daughter, Barbara, who witnesses the murder and flees. Neither has a whole lot of character on their own terms; who they are and their importance to the story is more of a thematic question, which we’ll get to later in the week. But Barbara, in particular, bears mentioning here, because the romantic side-plot between her and Powell is creepy as hell.
In brief, Barbara sees Reich killer her father, a contingency Reich hadn’t prepared for, and gets away. Both Reich and Powell know that finding her is paramount, because whoever gets to her first can either kill her and stop her potential squealing (in Reich’s case) or use her as the star witness in a murder case (in Powell’s). Of course, they both end up finding her at the same time, but Powell gets her to safety. Unfortunately, she’s useless to him because the trauma of watching her father get murdered has rendered her largely catatonic. And to fix that, Powell subjects her to a medical procedure which mentally re-sets her to an infant stage. The procedure then accelerates her mind through childhood and adolescence, with the idea being that she’ll catch up to her actual age and be cleared of trauma. Powell and Mary Noyes look after Barbara during this process and act as her parental figures, with Powell occasionally probing her developing mind for evidence.
Which is all well and good, except that during this process, Powell and Barbara fall in love. There’s all this weird sexual telepathic stuff, and she’s getting flirty with him even though she’s mentally like eight years old, and Mary gets jealous, and then they get together at the end and Powell is calling her the pet names he used for her when she was a “baby,” and it’s just…yeah. It’s fucking creepy and it doesn’t need to be there at all. The only point of Barbara is to resolve Powell’s marriage dilemma, because of course she turns out to be an Esper at the last minute, so they can go live happily ever after. I hate that I’m going to have to revisit this when we get to overall themes, because eeewwwwww.
The final character I want to briefly mention is a young woman named Duffy Wyg& (yes, spelled like that). I want to mention her because she’s kind of awesome. She’s an associate of Reich’s, but she has about as much agency as a minor character in this story can have, particularly when that character happens to be female. She’s all about her career, which involves writing jingles for advertising, and while she’s clearly wants to jump Reich’s bones, she also knows her own value; she comes to him not as a supplicant or anything so demeaning, but informing him that he doesn’t know what he’s missing by turning her down. “Clever-up, dog,” she advises him. “Why aren’t you as smart as I think you are?” She’s smart and sexy and doesn’t take any shit; she’s also the person who comes up with Reich’s defense against peeping, the catchiest jingle she’s ever written, so good it blocks mind-reading (tension, apprehension and dissension have begun). There’s a reason she plays the role of Reich’s dream girl in the telepathic fantasy in which Powell traps him later.
And if you want to know why her name is Duffy Wyg&, come back tomorrow, when we discuss Bester’s unconventional use of typeface, grammar, and language.