Friday, March 30, 2012

FFB: The Demolished Man - Alfred Bester

Sometimes it takes me several decades to catch up to the rest of the world. Reading The Demolished Man (1953) is one of those long overdue experiences. I seem to have been collecting editions of the book but never taking the time to read the book even though I know it to be the kind of genre blending tale I enjoy that mixes crime with science fiction. I kept putting it off. After coming across yet another copy of the book (the second paperback printing seen at left) I felt the universe was trying send me a subtle message and so I bought it -- making my fourth copy of the book -- and finally read the thing. Talk about Amazing Stories! Why did I ever wait this long?

It's the 24th century and crime is practically non-existent in the world thanks to a highly developed psychic police force and other Espers who can read the minds of individuals with criminal tendencies. The Espers using their psychic powers weed out the criminal thought patterns and can put an end to the crime before it even begins. Multimillionaire Ben Reich is determined to acquire the business of his rival D'Courtney. When D'Courtney refuses to accept his business offer after several Reich decides to eliminate his competition thus making it easier to acquire his business. He enlists the aid of an easily corrupted and bribeable Esper, buys an ancient 20th century pistol from a crooked pawnshop dealer, and carries out his murder plan on the night of a hedonistic party at the home of D'Courtney's wealthy and addle-brained neighbor.

But the plan goes awry. D'Courtney's daughter interrupts Reich in the very act of the crime. She witnesses Reich shoot her father and flees the house clad only in a nightgown. Reich then pursues her thinking it should be easy since she is inappropriately dressed and that ought to slow her down, but she manages to elude his capture. The hunt is on for her so that his crime can be the perfect one he planned.

On the very first page I knew this was going to be something unique.  Here is a sample of the unusual ideas Bester employs in his futuristic setting:
He lay quietly in the hydropathic bed while his heart shuddered and his eyes focussed at random on objects in the room, simulating a calm he could not feel.  The walls of green jade, the nightlight in the porcelain mandarin whose head nodded interminably if you touched him, the multi-clock that radiated the time of three planets and six satellites, the bed itself, a crystal pool flowing with carbonated glycerine at ninety-nine point nine Farenheit.
 From the opening paragraph in which we learn that Reich is being haunted by a recurring dream starring "The Man With No Face" to the strangely named characters with symbols in parts of their names (Sam @tkins, Duffy Wyg&) or just plain strange (Chook Frood, Snim Asj) to the satellite of a faraway planet that has become an adult playground that goes beyond even the fantasies of Westworld to the deadly weapon Reich uses that is a weird combination of pistol and knife (see the excellent realization in the UK DJ at left) this book is jammed pack with originality.  Nearly everything may seem old hat to a modern reader because it has been heavily borrowed from by writers like Dick, Vonnegut and dozens of SF screenplay writers. This book held me in its spell for a brief day and a half.  I couldn't get enough of it and sped through the pages at a lightning pace.

I know this is hardly a forgotten book among the SF cognoscenti, but I'm not part of that elite bunch. To those of you who don't read any SF for fear it will brand you "one of the geeks" (as I once feared ages ago) forgive me while I lapse into my fanatical mode. READ THIS ONE! It's science fiction for people who don't like science fiction and it will change your opinion of the entire genre. I am sure of it. Now I'm on the hunt for Bester's others works including The Stars My Destination which I found last year in its 1st paperback edition and foolishly passed it up, placed it back in the box where I found it only to see it snapped up immediately by a young woman standing right next to me. One of the cognoscenti, no doubt.


  1. Brian -

    It's a guaranteed winner, Brian. Speaking of which -- forgot to mention Bester won the very first Hugo for Best SF Novel. But that's all over the interweb anyway.

    You'll know a book is truly worthwhile when I'm brief and mention only a few highlights so as not to spoil the pleasure of discovering it all first hand.

  2. And apparently the typographical innovations used in the original serialization in GALAXY were never fully transferred to any of the book editions. That's a potential project for an ebook or a collector's press.

    I've somewhat heretically always preferred the best of Bester's short fiction, such as "6,271,009", to his novels...but I still need to read WHO HE?

  3. And, fwiw, Bester was one of major sf writers came to see himself as primarily gay...though unlike Samuel Delany or Frank Robinson or Arthur C. Clarke, he didn't come to terms with this till late in life.

  4. Todd -

    I forgot to write about those typographical innovations. It was in my notes, but I skipped over it. Thanks for mentioning it. My Signet copies (I found the 1st printing yesterday coincidentally right after I finished writing my review!) have most of them. I also came across the first installment in that 1951 issue of GALAXY at a local book ship here and I'll have to go back and buy it to compare what's not in the book. It was in a sealed bag so I couldn't do that as a mere browser. Now I have a reason to buy it. Only $5 - why not?

    I saw a bit of "gayness" going on in this book with its overt sexuality but thought maybe I was reading into it too much. The nude party games and the predominance of male nudity, for example. Looks like perhaps I was right.

    Found a copy of the Gregg Press reissue of The Stars My Destination at the CPL. SF book maven and bookseller Lloyd Currey contributed a meaty literary/biographical intro on Bester and his work. Very interested in learning all I can about Bester now.

    I'm finding dozens of copies of The Demolished Man in my hunt for Bester's work in our Chicago book shops, but no luck with vintage copies of TSMD. Kicking myself for not buying that copy I saw last year. I know it's available in reissued modern trade paperbacks, but I'd rather have an older edition. Something about reading those vintage paperbacks that enhances the experience.

  5. I haven't read this, but it sounds interesting, so I shall have to seek it out. THE STARS MY DESTINATION is one of the best science fiction novels ever. Don't waste time kicking yourself, read a recent reissue. You can always look for a vintage copy later.

    By an odd coincidence, I'm reading Stephen King's LISEY'S STORY right now and Lisey's late husband, Scott, a writer (natch!), refers to TSMD as one of his favorite books and quotes from it in several places in the book.

  6. Don't know if it's a specifically US edition of TSMD you want, but the British edition was calledTiger, Tiger, from William Blake

  7. For me this is an absolute classic and one of my favourite books, in or our of whichever genre one decides to assign it to! Bester's short fiction is terrific by the way - his short story, 'The Men Who Murdered Mohammed' may be my favourite paradox story of all - great choice John and excellent review, as ever.