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

The second half The Demolished Man flies by in a blur of back-and-forth action. Lincoln Powell, one of the most powerful mind-readers and policemen in the world, knows everything about the crime committed by Ben Reich, a megolmaniac businessman and murderer. He knows the details, but knowing isn’t evidence enough: he needs proof, motive, and witnesses. He needs these things so he can get a conviction from a computer and send Ben Reich off to demolition.

In the most dated moment of the book, Bester’s description of Old Man Mose, the computer in charge of judging and prosecuting cases, describes a machine with absolutely zero futurethink beyond what it does:

“Old Man Mose himself occupied the entire circular wall of the giant office. His multitudinous eyes winked and glared coldly. His multitudinous memories whirred and hummed. His mouth, the cone of a speaker, hung open in a kind of astonishment at human stupidity. His hands, the keys of a multiflex typewriter, poised over a roll of tape, ready to hammer out logic. Mose was the Mosaic Multiplex Prosecution Computer of the District Attorney’s Office, whose awful decisions controlled the preparation, presentation, and prosecution of every police case.”

Even if Old Man Mose is severely outdated, the action leading up to the point in which Powell and his team finally input their argument for Reich’s demolition is not. Their battle rages across the inner solar system, from one perfect space opera set piece to another.

Bester tries his best to break your neck as the pieces manuever into place and the dominos begin to fall. There’s no mistaking Reich’s guilt or how he did it – this isn’t a mystery novel – but it remains to be seen whether or not Powell can make the case stick. Reich is equally powerful, if not moreso, considering his wealth across the planets and his complete willingness to buck societal norms altogether to see his own ends through.

Powell’s strategy is sound. In an operation called ‘rough and smooth’, he sends both his best cops and his worse to track down Reich, his associates, and keep tabs on their every move. He sends his worse because they give Reich a false sense of security; every time he manages to shake one off, his ego grows. That’s where the good detectives come in: while patting himself on the back, Reich continuously leaves himself open.

The back-and-forth whir of action plays out more like a chess match than anything else. There aren’t many explosions or shoot outs. Every move of a piece is a new setpiece and a new part of the puzzle that will tip the scale. It’s the dialogue that makes everything pop as loud as a gun or explosion would. Early on, one of the big pieces of the puzzle is Barbara D’Courtney, the daughter of the deceased and only witness to Reich’s actions. Finding her is of the utmost for either player, but especially for Reich who hires a crime boss to find her:

“I may have to slush for her.”

Then slush. Check every bawdy house, bagnio, Blind Tiger, and frab-joint in the city. Pass the word down the grapevine. I’m willing to pay. I don’t want any fuss. I just want the girl. Understand? – Reich to Quizzard

Lines like these crackle with all the same intensity of a black-and-white film noir. They do all the heavy lifting without the need for huge blots of exposition or narration to explain the give-and-take.

All the pleasantries aside, my original question when first embarking on this reread was whether or not The Demolished Man holds up. After arriving at the novels conclusion, I can safely say that it’s definitely a kind-of-sort-of deal.

Certainly, some of the individual parts stand-out. There’s a great series of scenes for both Reich and Powell on a place called the Shelf. Essentially a colonized asteroid, it grew and grew as more people built their own additional platforms to add new real estate. There, one of the solar system’s largest wildlife reserves provides an environment with zero safety nets and all the wilderness and beasts a brave soul would ever want. Some of the characters are great too. Reich himself manages to be a sympathetic character, despite being more rage and fury than anything else. Powell functions as a Superman-figure, bound by ethics and society, but hellbent on seeing justice through.

The Demolished Man almost works because of these unique settings and characters, but it so intimately tied to the times in which it was published. It doesn’t really sell to my modern ears. Ignore the treatment of women for a moment and focus instead on the Freudian psychology that permeates and defines the entire book. It’s absolutely bizarre, and includes a forced love story where two people fall in love simply through a meeting of their psyches, while one of those people spends the majority of the book treating the other as a father figure as she slowly relives her entire life while locked deep inside her on subconscious.

If you can follow that sentence, then you can follow this book, though your eyes may roll the entire time like mine did.

Even with the negatives, I still loved The Demolished Man. I imagine my younger self didn’t know much better when it came to psychology, so whether it sounded sincere or fantasy, it didn’t matter how dated Bester’s ideas were even then. I can still move past that now, however, because Bester’s writing is top notch for this kind of novel. It’s just fun. Sometimes that’s all you want in a novel too, so Bester and The Demolished Man should definitely be what you reach for whenever that is the case.