Alfred Bester’s 1951 The Demolished Man is a landmark sci-fi novel in more ways than one. Prominent enough to have been awarded the inaugural Hugo, it likewise presents motifs of science fiction that would later become the mainstays of writers like Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Robert Silverberg, and many others interested in the future and the mind. Telepathy, psychology mixed with technology, and big metaphysical questions are the main devices at work. Though several elements of the story are antiquated, for as much as Bester’s first novel is a product of its times, it is likewise ahead of its time, the rudiments of cyberpunk and modern sci-fi at play in its heart.
Though a handful of main characters propel the novel, The Demolished Man is ultimately the story of Ben Reich. CEO of Monarch, one of the world’s largest firms, Reich’s greedy, ruthless manner finds him in a corporate battle with his main competitor, D’Courtney. The setting the solar system of 2301, telepaths exist and play a large role influencing society, and D’Courtney is able to employ the majority of the galaxy’s best. As a result, he is winning the corporate battle, that is, until Reich’s deep-seated emotional issues step in to drastically alter the scene. The resulting situation a mess, Chief Lincoln Powell (a telepath himself) opens a police investigation, forcing Reich to realize the competition has only just begun. The mind games of Reich and Powell escalating to the very end, who is left standing is down to the last pages.
Telepathy, particularly the depth to which one person is able to penetrate the mind of another, is the strongest motif of the novel. Freudian psychoanalysis unabashedly also at work, many readers will cringe at the simplistic manner in which Bester imbues the story with the psychology of 1951. Anachronistic to say the least, he thankfully utilizes the idea more toward indicating characters’ in situ thoughts, extracting the past from memories, and learning of the future from intents. Ideas Philip K. Dick would five years later steal—err, develop—in “Minority Report”, fans of PKD will find Bester’s book very attractive and more than influential.
Bester having cut his teeth in the comic book industry, The Demolished Man moves in sharp, vivid tones. The dialogue and descriptions, though likewise anachronistic at times, are crisp and to the point, pushing the story from scene to scene with focus and effect. Borrowing another skill learned in his superhero days, Bester at times takes a free-style approach to the writing. Making words into art or drawing sentences into shapes, the text is not always to be read from right to left, top to bottom. Occasional neologisms thrown in for good measure, he should be commended for experimenting with style in a successful manner. 90% of the narrative standard, the 10% that appears different adds a nice bit of “color” and certainly makes the novel more unique and interesting.
A review would be remiss were it not to mention additional forebears and prototypes of ideas The Demolished Man introduced to the genre. All-powerful companies, non-utopian future, cosmetic surgery (interestingly called “pneumatic surgery”), drug use to escape psychological strain, the uncertainty of AI, and a relatively bleak view of society’s improvement all play parts in the novel, indicating some of the earliest leanings toward cyberpunk in the process. Beyond PKD, the book was undoubtedly significant in the development of writers like William Gibson, Ian McDonald, Bruce Sterling, and others who likewise think of the future in less than sterile terms.
In the end, The Demolished Man is standout sci-fi for its influence on later writers and its development of the idea of telepathy. Bester writing in a bold, and at times, experimental, style that doesn’t wait for anyone, readers should expect a fast-paced police procedural that is continually pushed forward one scene of action and strong character contact after another. A lot is accomplished in 175 pages. While certainly the Freudian elements will feel dated to most (this is in fact the weakest point of the novel), the remainder will be surprising for its prescience regarding the works of sci-fi to come. Fans of the aforementioned authors will not be disappointed by the novel. A seminal read ahead of its time, Bester drops the reader into his world head first and never looks back. Recommended.