I’d heard a lot about Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, but I’d never had a chance to read it before now. It’s a classic of science fiction, the winner of the first Hugo Award and the novel that inspired a generation of young writers into science fiction. But it’s been 50 years since TDM was first published; does it still hold up today? I found that it both does and doesn’t, for different reasons.
At its heart The Demolished Man is a science fiction mystery – only it isn’t a mystery in any conventional sense. The reader knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning; the twist is that Ben Reich lives in a society which has made murder virtually impossible due to powerful telepaths. So when Reich decides to murder business rival D’Courtney, the mystery is more how he can perform the murder and why he would want to. When Reich finally commits the murder, police prefect Lincoln Powell begins to investigate. If Reich gets away with murder, it will irreversibly change their society, and perhaps the universe itself…
I must admit, I had a strange reaction reading TDM. The novel itself I didn’t like much. Maybe a part of that was because I hadn’t read it previously and now it feels dated, but the concept of the novel seemed flawed to me. Reich has obvious motive, the most to benefit from killing his rival, and he was in the same place as D’Courtney when he was killed; the idea of him having this supposed anonymity for the crime just isn’t believable. And his later distractions for the police (opening charities, launching competitions, sending people offworld), likewise seem juvenile. But one thing which really troubled me was Bester’s depiction of women in TDM. The women are caricatures, depictions of male feminine ideals; socialites, clairvoyants, prostitutes, timid girls. I’d always thought TDM was an advanced novel, but in its attitude towards women, at least, it didn’t feel that way.
Perhaps I’m looking at TDM too much from a 21st century perspective, but I just didn’t find the story convincing. Nor could I grasp its Freudian undertones. Bester suggests that their society is unhealthy because they’ve stamped out the killer instinct, something they should learn from; but if you take this idea at face value, then how can you completely ignore that Powell is in love with Barbara as a perverse father/daughter relationship? He’s a man in love with a child, not a woman; but it’s never mentioned. In many ways TDM is a reverse morality play, but anything meaningful it says is overshadowed by the tone of the novel.
What I did find interesting, though, was seeing how much TDM has been used as a template for other works. I can see how at the time it was written that The Demolished Man would have influenced many writers with its blend of pulp fiction and ideas; its combination of low-life characters and run-down locations undoubtedly played a part in inspiring cyberpunk, and Bester’s use of italics and his structuring of psychic conversation (“basket weave”, etc.) was one of the earliest uses of graphologic layouts in science fiction. Bester’s influence is apparent in writers as diverse as John Brunner, Robert Silverberg and John C. Wright, due to the thematic diversity of his work, and it was that sense of experimentation that I found interesting in TDM; its blend of styles, Bester’s obvious love of language. That’s why I had a strange reaction; while not enjoying the novel, I appreciated the impact it had had and found following that more interesting than the story itself.
Overall, The Demolished Man is a mixed read. I don’t think it holds up as well as other novels from its time (Earth Abides, Childhood’s End, The Man in the High Castle), but the impact it’s had on the genre is unparalleled. If you’ve never read The Demolished Man before, maybe now is a good time to check it out; or if you have read it, maybe it’s time to revisit TDM and see for yourself how it stands up today.