Monday, October 8, 2007

Review - The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man
by Alfred Bester
1953 Hugo Award for Best Novel

When the Worldcon voters started handing out Hugos they didn't kid around. They kicked off the Hugo awards with one of the greatest science fiction novels ever published.

The Demolished Man starts from a simple idea that wasn't rare even when it was first written: a world where telepathy exists. Ben Reich is a businessman who wants to get away with murder but the police have access to telepathy. Lincoln Powell is a telepath and a cop who is convinced that Reich is a murderer but needs to prove it. The heart of this book is the duel of wits; initially Reich plotting against society in general but the forces he was plotting against becomes personified through Powell.

This would have been a strong story in itself but Bester spends a lot of time in The Demolished Man with an examination of the telepathic society. When telepaths come together their thoughts run together which is represented by a kind of poetry with the words of their thoughts structured into patterns on the page. The thoughts run in threads that are interwoven and it conveys the telepathic viewpoint better than nearly any story I've ever read.

This style The other of text impressive allows part of the book is how to get into to fool the esper's telepaths. heads.

That's a rather simple example of the style of telepathic thoughts Bester uses. One of the better moments early on in the book is a party for telepaths where complex patterns of thoughts are formed out of many different viewpoints (it won't reproduce well for Blogger, unfortunately).

In addition to the unique viewpoint Bester really thought through the societal impacts of telepathy. Lincoln Powell may be a mind reader but he's not omnipotent. He can use his telepathy to guide him but what he gets from telepathy is not admissible as evidence due to problems of self-incrimination and hearsay. Telepaths are regimented and segregated away from normal people who are natually uneasy around them.

One of the more ingenious methods to avoid telepathic evesdropping that Reich uses (and has been copied many times since) is a song he can't get out of the head. Bester puts the ditty in the novel and it can be nearly effective on the reader as it is on Reich. At least we don't have music to make it stick even longer with us.
Eight, sir; seven sir; Six, sir; five, sir; Four, sir; three, sir; Two sir; one! Tenser, said the Tensor. Tenser, said the Tensor. Tension, apprehension, And dissension have begun.
Perhaps the worst thing that I can say about this novel is that it was so influential that it has been copied repeatedly and lost its impact. The most notable borrowing of Bester's concepts is the television series Babylon 5 where much of the structure of telepath society is very similar to Bester's work, a fact acknowledged by naming the show's reoccurring telepathic police officer after the author. The climax of the novel in particular has practically become a mainstay of science fiction though I can't recall another example of it being done from the same perspective.

If you're a fan of science fiction then this is a book you should read. The concepts used are just as strong today as they were fifty years ago and Bester paints some very strong characters at the center of his story.