Stylistically-Dated But Culturally-Relevant DEMOLISHED MAN Remains A Classic
Feb 12, 2014
As I’ve opined before, I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I’d sure like to have more time to do so. Like most of you, I’m a dreamer with big plans, and one of those plans is to read more books. I’ve got stacks and stacks of them upstairs, downstairs, in my den, on top of the bureau, etc. Like Ben Reich – our main character in Alfred Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN – I can conceive of great deeds … but what happens when those deeds overstep the bounds of propriety to my fellow man? If you live in a world like he does, then you know all too well that there will be consequences, the outcome of which should terrify you in ways that escaped him … until the very end.
Or did it?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Ben Reich lives a hugely successful life as one of the most powerful and richest man in all of tomorrow. However, even after amassing so much wealth and prosperity, there’s still something eating away at him: a competitor – his business equal named D’Courtney – continues to ‘exist.’ Hoping to solidify his legacy, Reich composes a dastardly plot: either D’Courtney will consent to merging their two corporations, or he’ll be dead.
The twist in THE DEMOLISHED MAN is that, in this world of tomorrow, murder has been obsolete for ages; and that’s because police long ago began using telepaths – psychically-inclined people known as ‘Espers’ – to monitor all of mankind for evil thoughts. After all, what better way to maintain the peace than to know precisely what each and every citizen is thinking at any given moment, allowing the authorities then to intercede before a crime can possibly be perpetrated? Reich has built his world on his abilities to “get things done,” and – come Hell or high water – he has a plan he believes will elude authorities.
And that’s what MAN is really about: man’s conceit to think he can always outsmart the other guy. The theme gets explored in a variety of ways throughout the brisk tale, and that examination isn’t only limited to Reich’s moments in the narrative. His pre-cog pursuer – Lincoln Powell – even participates in dissecting the greater world around them, albeit from the perspective of one who’s gifted with extraordinary abilities. Suffice it to say that neither of these men are fully disclosing to readers as the novel progresses, and it isn’t until very late in the final chapters that Bester’s shown his hand, leaving the audience to finally grasp the complexity of what otherwise seems like a relatively routine procedural throughout these 200+ pages.
Also, Bester constructs portions of MAN with some clever editing and composition. Because characters within the tale have the ability to read minds, they can transfer information in ways other than prose; Bester kinda/sorta toys with the presentation of his text to get some of these ideas across. As much as they were probably exciting for their time (the book was first published in 1951), they’re only interesting by today’s standards. In fact, one might argue that, otherwise, MAN could easily be overlooked as a dated text; it’s the impact of the destruction toward the end that better serves to underscore why the book remains important for today’s possibly cynical readers.
Clearly – if you’re looking closely – you can see how THE DEMOLISHED MAN has influenced other sci-fi products and concepts. Virtual reality. Other precognition works. Heck, I immediately thought of a half-dozen high concept films including THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR and (more apropos) THE MATRIX. There are layers to any existence, and we define our experience by trafficking in these layers. Who we are today is only one step on the road toward the person we’re becoming tomorrow … but what happens if that destination isn’t mutually beneficial for the rest of mankind? Action will be taken, and what’s left of our immortal soul (if anything) as these shrouds are stripped away one by one?
That, my dear, is what ‘Demolition’ is all about.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Others are free to disagree, but I’ve always thought I can measure the greatness of any classic by two traits: (1) despite its age, it’s still relevant, and (2) now that I’ve finished it, I’d discover more of what I missed upon reading it again. Alfred Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN certainly fits the bill so far as I could say. It’s no wonder that the novel was the winner of the first Hugo Award for science fiction novel. On the surface, it’d be easy to dismiss some of its reputation as little more than creative, stylistic meanderings of a genius penning prose; but once you get to the conclusion and come to grips with what really has been going on you might have to pause to pick your jaw up from off the floor before closing the cover.
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What? You don't know enough about me from the picture? Get a clue! I'm a graduate from the School of Hard Knocks! You can find me around the web as "Trekscribbler" or "Manchops". … more
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In the year 2301, the wealthiest man in the universe is determined to commit murder in a world in which telepaths are used to detect possible crimes before they can happen. Reprint. 10,000 first printing.
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Vintage; First Thus edition (July 2, 1996)