More Plus Infinity: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (Part I)

Published in 1953, The Demolished Man is Alfred Bester’s first published novel and the first ever recepient of a Hugo Award. Bester honed his writing edge as a scripter for comics, radio programs, and television shows in the 1940s. Every bit of it shows in The Demolished Man, a science fiction story set in a future where mind-reading ‘espers’ are common place and a prominent business man named Ben Reich decides to perform the first premeditated murder in over seventy years. I originally read this book in my early teens, but now that I am an adult (with a Liberal Arts degree under my belt), how does Bester’s first classic stand up in a second reading?

In just the early goings of the novel, I found Bester’s writing balances precariously between perfection and ridiculous cheesiness. His language has all the ZIP! ZAP! and PUNCH! of a comic strip. His plot can be boiled down to an instantly understandable single sentence summation: an anti-hero tries to prove his innocence though his pursuant knows he is guilty, and his pursuant will stop at nothing to prove his guilt, despite the respect he has for his opponent.

“It was a XXth Century Knife-Pitol … the quintessence of murder.”  – Bester’s own description of the murder weapon Ben Reich planned on using.

Every word in The Demolished Man bleeds style, but sometimes things smudge into a textbook case of style over substance. Ben Reich seems likable enough as the novel’s anti-hero, but his entire characterization is defined by the madness driving him. As he attempts to persuade a society of mind-readers with his charm and charisma, the reader maintains direct access into his delusions of grandeur, his schemes, and just how lost he is.

With his accomplice in toe (a mind reader of the highest order to help run interference for him while Mr. Reich tries to hide his motives from everyone else), Reich gets to shout deliciously pulpy sentences like:

“My God! It’s lucky for the world I’m willing to stop at one murder. Together we could rape the universe.”

It’s an absurd sentence to utter and it abandons all pretenses of subtlety, but somehow it works more often than not. The novel hits its stride early and maintains the pace; its language abandons nuance to make sure that speed remains steady.

In just the first six chapters of the novel, Bester introduces us to all the players, the setting, and the motivation that will drive the rest of the novel with absolute expertise. We learn how Espers work: these individuals are born with specifically ranked levels of mind-reading ability, and have permeated every aspect of civilized life to an extent that they are common place.

Despite the difficulty in reading it, Bester took a big chance when it came to writing out how these Espers communicate directly with one another. Rather than leaving their words in italics, Bester emulates their communication by turning sentences into shapes and patterns. It’s far from practical, but it sells the alien nature of their communication perfectly. It also keeps The Demolished Man fresh and current, despite the numerous indications that it is anything but.

In particular, women are not portrayed in the best light. Some of that is a product of the age, but even for someone such as myself, who tends to give the author the benefit of the doubt and tries to be very understanding of problematic portrayals of gender, The Demolished Man has problems. The novel’s secondary protagonist and hero figure feels dogged by a close female friend who desperately wants to marry him, despite knowing he doesn’t love her as anything more. Without a strong female character to show any alternative, the passing disdain that some of the novel’s men spouse about women in general comes off as undoubtably a product of its time, but also a real sore spot for modern readers.

Despite the passive sexism, Bester takes a far more open approach to sex and sexuality. The scene where Ben Reich plans to commit the murder takes place at a party which, in short, is just an excuse for an orgy. The party’s main host, a woman unerotically referred to as the Gilt Corpse, is described as someone more plastic than flesh in a bid to presumably keep her youth and sexuality at their peek.

In another fitting example of Bester’s ‘unique’ phrasing, when Ben Reich finally finds his target at the party, his victim tries as best as he can to surrender to him. The whole scene cements Ben Reich delusions as absolute, murderous intent and guarantees his wickedness. Even as his victim – the sick, barely-able-to-speak CEO of Ben Reich’s only rival – attempts to hug his murderor, Ben Reich manages to speak this fascinating response:

“You crafty old pimp. Am I supposed to turn soft for your chewing?”

It is absurd and probably quite dumb out of context, but somehow it still works for me. The Demolished Man reads like a great B-movie rather than a classic piece of literature.

More than five decades after the fact, The Demolished Man remains a breezy read, sharply in contrast to some of the more stately, heavier novels that have won Hugo Awards since. In my rereading of just the first six chapters, I can understand exactly why my younger self was so enamored with this work, but now I know better enough to recognize some of the novel’s biggest issues. Those problems aside, I am excited to keep reading the journey, even though I do have an idea of what is next (an epic pursuit across the planets in the inner solar system). I won’t say The Demolished Man is perfect, but it holds up well enough that I still think it is worth the read. At least so far.

Bonus Note:

After the murder occurs, everyone is quite baffled by the whole idea (again, it’s been 70+ years since a premeditated murder took place). The Demolished Man is, in many ways, a police procedural at heart, so when the detective meets back up with his crime scene investigators, I couldn’t help but laugh when the main investigator kept repeating, “It’s a bitch.”

I wasn’t aware the phrase “it’s a bitch” was in usage in 1953. Perhaps I am stuck in thinking the era was as demure as our grandparents would like us to believe. I know better, but sometimes knowing isn’t enough to exceed expectations. It’s a real bitch that way, you know?