The Demolished Man: What A Twist

Source: Hugo+Nebula Science Fiction Review Project

Every good book has a twist, and if you’ll pardon the innuendo, The Demolished Man has a pair of big ones. The first involves the character of Ben Reich and the revelation of how deteriorated his mind truly is; the second has to do with the nature of Demolition itself. The truth about Demolition bleeds over into the discussion of overall theme, which will be the topic of my final post on this book, so we’ll save that for last and start with Reich, who, as the ultimate unreliable narrator, provides the reader with a beautiful bait-and-switch at the very beginning of the book.

Bester makes it clear in the very first chapter why Reich is attempting to kill D’Courtney: for his own financial survival. The D’Courtney cartel is slowly putting Monarch, Reich’s company, out of business, and Reich is determined to stay solvent. However, before setting his course firmly on murdering his rival, Reich first offers a compromise. In a classic “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” move, Reich uses a corporate code language to ask D’Courtney for a merger. The code he sends D’Courtney reads “YYJI TTED RRCB UUFE AALK QQBA,” which a handy page of code translations allows us to read as “SUGGEST MERGER BOTH OUR INTERESTS EQUAL PARTNERSHIP.”

Reich knows that D’Courtney has no reason to accept the offer. “It’s no use,” he says to himself. “I know I’ll have to kill him. He won’t accept merger. Why should he? He’s licked me and he knows it. I’ll have to kill him and I’ll need help. Peeper help.” During the remainder of the chapter, Reich talks to one of his peeper staff members, Ellery West, who refuses to help him and gives us some information on the Espers in the process. He goes to his safe and pulls out a series of outdated murder plans left to him by Geoffrey Reich, the family’s founding father. As ideas begin to formulate in his mind, he receives the reply from D’Courtney.

“WWHG. ‘Offer refused.’ Refused! REFUSED! I knew it! All right, D’Courtney. If you won’t let it be merger, then I’ll make it murder.”

This is the story as we know it. Reich offered merger. D’Courtney refused. Reich killed D’Courtney. Powell is seeking a conviction on Reich. And specifically, seeking to establish Reich’s motive, which he (like the reader) knows to be profit-driven. Toward the end of the book, after his climactic showdown with Reich in a futuristic safari park, Powell feeds all the information he’s collected on the Reich case to “Old Man Mose,” the computer that essentially serves as this society’s preliminary justice system. At first, Mose spits the case back out, citing insufficient evidence to prove a passion motive. This puzzles Powell, because he (like the reader) knows the motive was profit, not passion, and he assumes the machine was just having a glitch. Powell thinks the problem is that they haven’t yet managed to translate Reich’s coded exchange with D’Courtney yet, and because he (like the reader) knows for a fact that Reich made an offer for merger and was refused, he feeds Mose the case again, but tells Mose to include the assumption that the merger information is correct. Mose replies that the probability of a prosecution is a staggering 97%.

And then the code-breaking team comes back with their results, and Powell is less than pleased.


“’Damn it, that’s what I’ve said all along. And D’Courtney replied: WWHG. That was a refusal. Reich told Tate. Tate told me.’

“’D’Courtney answered WWHG. That reads: ACCEPT OFFER.’

“’The hell it does!’

“’The hell it don’t. WWHG. ACCEPT OFFER. It was the answer Reich wanted. It was the answer that gave Reich every reason for keeping D’Courtney alive. You’ll never convince any court in the solar system that Reich had a motive for murdering D’Courtney. Your case is washed out.’”

D’Courtney accepted the offer? The hell? Everything that has happened so far began with the catalyst of D’Courtney refusing the offer. ACCEPT OFFER means that Reich had no reason to commit murder…but we know he did. Like Powell, everything we had taken for granted was wrong.

And the most delicious thing is that, if you go back and look at that page of code translations from the first chapter…it’s right there. WWHG = ACCEPT OFFER, hidden between the code for “information” and the code for “generally known,” neither of which we had reason to even glance at. It’s. Right. There. Maybe you’re a really smart person and caught on to what was happening right then and there, and if so, kudos, but I certainly didn’t. Reich said WWHG meant OFFER REFUSED, and I believed him. I never considered the possibility that he was an unreliable narrator, which was Bester’s intent all along.

One of the big reasons Bester is able to fool you here is because the idea of the unreliable narrator is most often seen in books written in the first person. It’s a little easier to spot in that context, because you’re expressly looking through someone else’s eyes, and everyone has a personal perspective that doesn’t always line up with the way things actually are. But The Demolished Man is written from third-person perspective, which carries with it a certain assumption of objectivity. The characters aren’t telling you the story themselves; someone else is telling you about them. And because Ben Reich has come across as, if not completely sane, then at least lucid, a master of his own corporate domain, a shrewd businessman and a cunning killer, when he translates D’Courtney’s message, we take him at his word, and don’t even bother to flip back a few pages to see if WWHG appears in the code translations.

It turns out that Reich actually murdered D’Courtney because D’Courtney was actually Reich’s absentee father. Reich had figured this out on some subconscious level, and his mind had twisted Reich’s perception of reality to allow the murder to occur. I will say that this idea did occur to me during the actual murder scene, but once again, Bester works some magnificent trickery in that regard. When Reich bursts in with a gun, far from showing fear, D’Courtney greets him with open arms. “Ben…Dear Ben…Waited so long.” What’s more, D’Courtney even tells Reich that he accepted the merger offer.

“’What? WWHG? Acceptance?’

“The old man nodded again.

“Reich shrieked with laughter. ‘You clumsy old liar. That’s refusal. Denial. Rejection. War.”

Once again, we believe Reich on this point, not the man he has come to murder. And an explanation for D’Courtney’s welcoming behavior is provided later, when Sam @kins, D’Courtney’s psychologist, reveals that D’Courtney was suicidal. This immediately fits with OFFER REFUSED, as we can assume that D’Courtney intended to drive Reich to murder as a means of taking his own life. But D’Courtney was actually suicidal because he had been an absentee father all these years and felt guilty about it. Once again, Bester puts the answer right in front of us, spells it right out, and still manages to make the ACCEPT OFFER revelation a mind-boggling twist. That’s some damn talent.

Because the central plot turns out to be a son murdering a father, The Demolished Man has taken some criticism for being just another exploration of the Freudian father complex. While that element is certainly there, I don’t think it’s quite so simple. My personal pet theory is that Reich, like his half-sister, Barbara, is a latent Esper himself. There’s not a lot of text backing me up on this, but hear me out. There doesn’t seem to be any way for Reich to have known D’Courtney was his father, but subconsciously, he does. There’s also a scene in which Reich has the opportunity to kill Powell (or at least believes he does) but would have to kill Barbara, as well. Reich doesn’t pull the trigger. Powell explains this later by saying that Reich somehow sensed that Barbara was his sister, but how could he have? There’s no information to suggest that telepathic abilities run in families, but given the emphasis on genetics over the course of the books, wouldn’t it follow that someone who shares genetic material with an Esper is at least a little more likely to be an Esper themselves?

Then there’s the case of Duffy Wyg&, who, as mentioned previously, is the only non-Esper in the book to carry the typographic naming convention. I’m making several spurious leaps of logic here, but what if the naming convention does indicate telepathic abilities, and Duffy herself is a peeper? Like Reich and Barbara, she might not know it herself, but given her role as the person who comes up with a brilliant way for mundane humans to block telepathy, it fits from a symbolic perspective. And if that’s true, combined with the emphasis on Espers marrying one another, doesn’t it make sense that Reich’s fantasy at the end of the book involves he and Duffy agreeing to get married if both of them are, in fact, Espers?

Like I said, it’s just a theory, and a flimsy one, at that. Maybe I’ve spent too much time writing about A Song of Ice and Fire and am still stuck in “everyone is a Targaryen” mode. But I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss The Demolished Man as simply Freudian. There’s way too many other things going on.

The second major twist of the book comes at the very end, when we discover that Demolition – the final fate that Reich spends the entire book trying to avoid – is not capital punishment…at least not in its traditional sense.. It is not the destruction of the physical body, but the destruction, and subsequent reconstruction, of the mind. And that ties into some very interesting social and economic themes present in The Demolished Man, which will be the subject of the final post on this book.


2 thoughts on “The Demolished Man: What A Twist

  1. David Hunt

    It has been years since I Read the Demolished Man and I’ve never felt the need to go back. I hadn’t given the reason much thought but your comment in an earlier essay about your friend finding all the characters unlikable struck a chord. Given that, I am one of those people who actually did go back and check the code key to translate the response myself. I didn’t figure out Reich’s true motive until the story revealed it to me, but I knew that it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. IIRC, It left me with an ongoing low-level confusion throughout the book. Maybe that is another reason I never went back to it.

    I’m definitely looking forward to you thoughts on the process of Demolition.

    Finally, this is a great concept for a blog and I’m looking forward to coming back semi-regularly to partake of your efforts. Best of luck on the new venture.


    1. Miles Schneiderman

      Thanks for the kind words, David, and kudos for being the kind of person who goes back to check the code key (although I can definitely see how that might have affected your experience of the book)! For the record, Jo Walton isn’t exactly a friend of mine, though I did interview her once. She’s a Hugo winner herself and wrote an excellent series of articles con called “Revisiting the Hugos.” I highly recommend it.


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