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.
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.
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.
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?
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.