The Demolished Man: Spoken Like The Future


First of all, I should take a moment to admit that writing blog posts on all five days of last week probably wasn’t a great thing to plan on doing during a week when I was scheduled for double shifts on three of those days. Sorry about that.

Second, a friend of mine recently informed me that Alfred Bester was the guy who wrote the Green Lantern oath for DC Comics. So…that’s pretty cool. Even if he apparently hated comics.

That same friend also mentioned the way language and typeface is used in The Demolished Man, which might actually be the most fun part of the book. Just like watching a musician live is always better if you can tell he or she loves playing an instrument, this novel benefits from the obvious joy Bester takes in playing with language. It’s not just that he writes great dialogue or that he excels at using language to convey setting. I mean, he does, but so do other people. The two things that really strike you linguistically about The Demolished Man are name abbreviations straight out of the Net Generation’s wet dreams, and a bizarre and beautiful presentation of telepathic speech. The former may have been done by others at some point, likely in recent years. As for the latter, it’s unique in my experience. Which might not be saying much, given that this blog exists because of my lack of experience, but still.

Over the course of the book, we meet a number of minor characters with somewhat unconventional name structures. In addition to Duffy Wyg&, who we discussed in the last post, there’s also D’Courtney’s physician, @kins (whose brief couple pages of characterization are kind of wonderful; I could probably write a whole essay on him and I kind of wish I had time), and Reich’s lawyer is named 1/4maine. In the original serial, Powell’s partner, Jackson Beck, had his name spelled $$son Beck, as “jack” was a slang term for money. Bester ended up taking that one out and writing “Jackson” like an authorial commoner because he didn’t think anyone would get it. I suspect he was right about that, but the anecdote serves as another example of Bester’s naming system .

Of course, these typographic symbols serve the purpose of shortening names by representing existing sounds. In this regard, Bester is accurately predicting the rise of leetspeak, if not the entire general direction communication seems to be heading if Twitter is any indication. More interesting, though, is the fact that this kind of orthography works particularly well when paired with the idea of telepaths. After all, when representing telepathic speech in print, wouldn’t in make sense to use every available shortcut, given the speed at which information is being conveyed? The connection between these naming conventions and the Espers is reinforced by the fact that three of the four people with this type of name — @kins, 1/4maine, and the reconsidered $$son — are peepers. The only non-peeper with such a name is Duffy Wyg&, an exception that will come up again in a later post.

But simply shortening names wasn’t enough to properly convey telepathic conversation as Bester imagined it. He also used graphic portrayals that are honestly pretty mind-blowing. They begin at the party hosted by Powell. The first picture is a jumble of words that can be read as various sentences, but which are scattered and unorganized. Some sentences link up with others via shared words, but they also twist in strange directions and are arbitrarily placed in the page. The composition brilliantly conveys a feeling of several voices loudly talking over one another, but we can read several lines of telepathic dialogue:


When Powell pleas for a more controlled pattern, however, a new picture appears. An organized grid of words, arranged in four rows and five columns, conveys the flow of the conversation more elegantly — not just for the party-goers, but for the readers:


All these sentences are carefully arranged in the grid, except the word “yet,” whose appearance outside the pattern causes laughter among the Espers. “Sorry,” “enough,” “plan” and “D’Courtney” form the corners of the square, with various linguistic tricks allowing the sentences to mesh together on the sides. The final three letters in “loathe,” for example, combine with a sentence that includes the word “the.”

Which is all to say that Bester provides a wonderful visual representation of telepathic communication, using both the sentence combinations and the idea of language forming a pattern. Meanwhile, the reader is being provided multiple pieces of important information. Tate can’t get his target to open up about D’Courtney, but we know D’Courtney is arriving soon. Powell is a popular candidate for Guild presidency, but the Guild requires marriage as part of its plan to promote Esper genetics. And Monarch, Ben Reich’s company, is already on the Guild’s radar for unethical practices, something that has implications later on.

The party scene is the only one in which we see telepathic communication visualized in this way, which is a bit of a shame, but certainly must have made finishing the book easier. The final picture is picked up by Jerry Church as he stands outside the door, depicting a poem whose words are arranged to form pictures (an eye inside a glass, or stein) which in turn forms a visual pun (Einstein):


It’s unclear whether this picture, constructed by Mary Noyes, is part of a game or simply just her entertaining herself, but Church seems to find it routine, even primitive, which suggests that this kind of telepathic wordplay is common practice. It’s definitely the kind of thing Bester enjoys, at any rate. His linguistic playfulness and conception of the Esper language system is one of the most unique and beautiful things about The Demolished Man.

Next time, in this book’s penultimate piece of analysis, we’ll look at the story’s two major twists, and what they mean for the narrative as a whole.


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