The Demolished Man: The Barrier of Our Blindness


I’ve read a lot of articles recently looking back on The Demolished Man, and one thing that amazes me is how little attention is paid to the actual concept of Demolition, and how frequently (in my opinion, anyway) the writer seems to misunderstand the actual themes of the book. They talk about the Espers and the world-building, they talk about the breakneck pace and lack of descriptive detail, they bring up the Freud thing every time, but the social and political commentary that I believe is the most intriguing thing about Bester’s novel is consistently glossed over. I’ve saved this post for last because I think The Demolished Man is about something much more interesting than murder in a telepathic society. Bester hints at several larger ideas throughout the book, but the final chapter is where they all come out into the open. And maybe it’s just because I studied political science, but it seems to me that Bester is not only advocating a philosophy of fundamental human goodness, but making an argument in favor of a socialist society. Or, at the very least, an argument against a capitalist one.

Let’s start with Demolition, which, as I mentioned in the last post, is the second major twist of the novel. Demolition is this society’s most severe punishment, and Ben Reich spends the entire book seemingly trying to avoid it. Granted, it turns out his psychotic excuse for a conscience has actually been steering him toward Demolition the entire time, as it attempted to justly punish him for his actions, but even in that context, Demolition is a thing to be feared. By its role as the judge’s most extreme sentence, by Reich’s reactions to it as a possibility, and by its very name, the reader is led to assume that Demolition is essentially the death penalty, albeit likely a futuristic version.

But in the final chapter, after Powell finishes explaining to Barbara why the two of them can be together after all (eeeewwwwwww) a naked, screaming creature named Ben Reich falls from the roof of Kingston Hospital, the Demolition process having already begun. Bester, as mentioned, is light on detail for most of the book, but here he lays the description on thick:

“When a man is demolished at Kingston Hospital, his entire psyche is destroyed. The series of osmotic injections, begins with the topmost strata of cortical synapses and slowly works down, switching off every circuit, extinguishing every memory, destroying every particle of the pattern that has been built up since birth. And as the pattern is erased, each particle discharges its portion of energy, turning the entire body into a shuddering maelstrom of disassociation.

“But this is not the pain; this is not the dread of Demolition. The horror lies in the fact that the consciousness is never lost; that as the psyche is wiped out, the mind is aware of its slow, backward death until at last it too disappears and awaits the rebirth. The mind bids an eternity of farewells; it mourns at an endless funeral. And in those blinking, twitching eyes of Ben Reich, Powell saw the awareness…the pain…the tragic despair.”

Holy shit, that sounds awful. It’s not the death penalty, after all – not in the physical sense, anyway – but it’s basically portrayed as the worst possible thing one can experience. It is the execution not of the body, but of the mind. And in Powell’s subsequent conversation with the doctor, we learn why this is done:

“How’s the treatment coming?”

“Wonderful. He’s got the stamina to take anything. We’re stepping him up. Ought to be ready for rebirth in a year.”

“I’m waiting for it. We need men like Reich. It would have been a shame to lose him.”

“Lose him? How’s that possible? You think a little fall like that could – “

“No. I mean something else. Three or four hundred years ago, cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them. Capital punishment, they called it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Scout’s honor.”

“But it doesn’t make sense. If a man’s got the talent and guts to buck society, he’s obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you’ve got left are the sheep.”

“I don’t know. Maybe in those days they wanted sheep.”

Okay, so leaving aside Powell’s sudden flight of historical whimsy that allows Bester to make a direct comparison between his imagined justice system and the real one (and the fact that three or four hundred years from now, people will still apparently be saying “scout’s honor”) this reads as a scathing indictment of capital punishment. Our justice system is based on the idea that at a certain point, a person’s immoral actions cancel out their potential value to society, or indeed, indicate that the person had no such value to begin with. It’s an idea rooted in the notion that people are fundamentally flawed and require laws to correct them. Those who break the law, far from being a “plus value,” as Dr. Jeems puts it, are in fact a minus value, a negative contribution, and society is enhanced by their demise. Bester – or at least Powell and Jeems, an important distinction – does more than recognize the inherent value of all people, even criminals. He suggests that criminal activity is a sign of “talent and guts”, giving criminals the potential for “above average” contributions.

It’s true that, like many sci-fi elements of the book, the actual process being described comes with some serious questions. If you completely destroy a person’s mind and re-start them from scratch, how can you keep from also demolishing all that talent and all those guts? Do talent and guts come from some other part of the body, like, I don’t know, the stomach? The left forearm? Maybe the testicles, considering this book’s general attitude toward women? But we can recognize Bester’s weaknesses in the hard science department without losing the overall message: Capital punishment is a waste of a perfectly good person, so long as that person can be corrected. Even in 2016, this can be seen as an argument for rehabilitation rather than lethal injection.

And it works in the context of Bester’s world, because all you need to believe in rehabilitation is to likewise believe in the concept of inherent human goodness. Powell, who represents the Espers at their closest to ideal, certainly believes in this, as his final telepathic monologue demonstrates:

“Listen, normals! You must learn what it is. You must learn how it is. You must tear the barriers down. You must tear the veils away. We see the truth you cannot see…That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart…”

Just because Powell is an idealist, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that Bester is. For one thing, it’s somewhat telling that Powell’s plea to the “normals,” resonant though it may be, can’t actually be heard by any of them. And there’s still the expressly horrific nature of Demolition to consider. If Bester really believed that his fictional system was better than the real one, why take such pains to describe Demolition in such negative terms?

There are a few answers to that question. First, even if criminal activity can be seen as a sign of potential, it shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded or encouraged. If there was nothing fearsome about Demolition, the law could be perceived as toothless. So while the process is ultimately beneficial to society, it is still destructive, and the torment involved has the same effect as capital punishment in terms of providing a deterrent to lawbreakers.

I’m not sold on that answer, though. The idea of punishment as deterrent, again, is based on a negative view of human nature, whereas Demolition is based on a positive view. And while Bester’s description is horrifying, the horrors in question come across as practical in nature, a function of what’s being accomplished, rather than a punishment in and of themselves. There’s something else going on here.

One of the words used to characterize the goodness of humanity in Powell’s final monologue is “sacrifice,” and I think that word is what lies at the heart of Demolition. When Powell encounters Reich in the middle of the process and speaks to him, Reich immediately recognizes Powell as a friend, which pleases Powell immensely. (As a side note, Reich’s halting attempts at talking are written in italics, which has been primarily used to identify telepathic conversation; it could simply be an expression of a very different manner of speech than usual, but given Bester’s affinity for typography, it strikes me as another argument in favor of Reich being an Esper) This fits with Powell’s statement that “we need men like Reich,” and with their earlier conversation, when they realize the mutual affinity between them. I’ve asked the question before: Why is Powell so determined to put Reich through the Demolition process? Why is he so morose when he fails to close the case? There’s justice to be considered, of course, and Powell’s future career, but as the story’s denouement unfolds, Powell’s true reasons for pursing Reich so vehemently become clear. They are tied both to his feeling of kinship with Reich and his sense of responsibility to society as a whole, and they ultimately lead to the understanding that Reich’s successful murder is actually the least important element of the plot.

When Reich evades his sleepwalking attempts on his own life and confronts Powell in his home, Powell has a revelation. “The murder isn’t important anymore,” he says after reading Reich’s mind and deducing the actual chain of events. “It goes deeper. Far deeper. And it’s dangerous…More than I ever dreamed.”

“If I could kill you,” Powell screams at Reich, “I’d twist your head off with my hands. I’d tear you apart and hang you on a Galacti Gallows, and the Universe would bless me. Do you know how dangerous you are? Does a plague know its peril? Is death conscious?”

Later, in the obligatory “But Holmes, how ever did you solve such a maddening case” scene in which Powell explains everything to the mayor, he informs us what he meant by these statements:

“He was one of those rare World-Shakers whose compulsions might have torn down our society and irrevocably committed us to his own psychotic pattern….These men appear every so often…links between the past and the future. If they are permitted to mature…If the link is permitted to weld…The world finds itself chained to a dreadful tomorrow.”

The true danger of Ben Reich was never his murderous impulse, nor his psychotic self-delusion. It was his phenomenal will, and the fact that such a will was chained to the megalomaniacal pursuit of capital. Bester drops hints throughout the book that the Esper Guild sees Reich as a threat to the civilization they are trying to build, and the name of Reich’s company, Monarch, is as carefully chosen as his own. Despite his inner guilt plotting against him, Reich outwardly exults in his initial escape from Demolition, loudly proclaiming that he will own everyone and everything around him. His words to Gus Tate and the beginning of the book – “Together, we could rape the universe” – speak to this capitalist mentality of all-encompassing ownership. Reich’s motives for killing D’Courtney turn out to be personal, but all his other motives involve money and property, which is the true danger Powell sees in him.

And what is the Esper Guild, if not a socialist organization? Required membership, nearly all income going to the Guild, which provides living conditions, regulations on jobs and marriage with the intent of serving the greater good…even Reich’s and Powell’s espionage tactics during the aftermath of the killing mirror their respective economic symbols. Reich uses money and influence to buy allies and manipulate sources of evidence, while Powell, time after time, uses the combined resources of other Espers to find Reich and bring him down. The conflict between Reich and Powell is, bizarrely enough, a conflict between socio-economic philosophies, played out on a small scale, but with large-scale implications.

Demolition is the resolution of that conflict. The pain of Demolition isn’t meant as punishment; it is the sacrifice one must make to be reintroduced as a productive member of society. The Demolished Man, in effect, is a story about neither murder nor telepathy, but about the last great scion of capitalism succumbing to inevitable defeat as a socialist replacement rises up around him, all for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

Now, this isn’t to say that Bester wrote his novel for the sake of making a pro-socialist statement. The Esper Guild might be the winners at the end of the story, but it, along with Powell, is far from perfect. Bester isn’t describing a utopia; he’s describing a society moving in a certain direction. He’s thinking about the future and using it to comment on the present.

So with that in mind…it’s kind of the perfect first Hugo winner, huh? I mean, that’s what the best science fiction does – speculate on what could be in order to examine what is. The Demolished Man certainly meets that requirement. Bester’s book takes a lot of criticism, and some of it is well-deserved, but it does everything a great sci-fi novel should do. If the history of the Hugos reflects the history of this genre, even a little, Bester’s final, cryptic paragraphs, and in particular, the novel’s closing words, establish the template for everything that came after it:

“There has been joy. There will be joy again.”


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