THE DEMOLISHED MAN – Alfred Bester (1953)

The Demolished ManWhat to write about this first ever winner of the Hugo award? The main conclusion must be this: times have changed. The CIA had a secret program (‘Project MKULtra’) trying to gain insight into mind control during the 1950s and the early sixties. Arthur C. Clarke dabbled in the paranormal: see the few lines I quoted from the foreword to Childhood’s End – also published in 1953, Asimov had telepaths living in a second Foundation, and Frank Herbert wrote The Santaroga Barrier as late as 1968. It were trippy times, and the belief in the potential powers of the mind was hopeful and naive.

Is this book science fiction? Not because it’s set in 2301 AD, as that doesn’t matter for the story: it could have been 1981 AD just as well. Not because it features Venus or Ganymede as locations, as that doesn’t matter either, it could have been Hawaii and Malawi too. The fact that humans colonized the solar system is not explored one bit – the most comical moment of the book is when a character wonders if he’ll catch the “10 o’clock rocket” to someplace off-planet. Not because cars are called jumpers and can fly. And not because the judge is a computer, as that could have been any bureaucrat.

It is science fiction because Freudian psychoanalysis was still considered scientific at the time, and Bester imagines a future time wherein a certain percentage of humans have discovered their telepathic powers. Within that frame The Demolished Man is mainly a police procedural about a megalomaniacal murderer and a psychic cop.

If not taken too seriously, it has aged quite well. It’s fun and entertaining. 250 pages, nothing complex, the pacing is spectacular. It’s finished in a couple of hours easily. Bester knew how to write. The prose is sharp and the tension alright. But… it’s obviously pulp. Not the worst pulp, not even bad pulp. But pulp.

Characters do not evolve. Emotions thin, if any.

Tons of plot inconsistencies. (TONS!)

Highly intelligent characters behave foolishly. Justifications for that stupid behavior are one-dimensional (or power, or self-deception, or love).

There’s a crescendo of additional speculative elements. Ok, a percentage of humans can read minds, but as we get to the end of the novel our heroes turn out to also possess the power to broadcast feelings to animals, get trapped in the Id of others, and channel all their minds into one giant energy beam that does something unclear.

The book is steeped in middle school level Freud, but I’m sure that wouldn’t hold Slavoj Žižek from reading something profoundly Lacanian into Bester’s debut.

Also: what’s Bester’s view on humanity?

That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and a sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. 

Yet at the same time the book deals with “the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sickness” inside everybody, as “it’s quite simple. Everyman is a balance of two opposed drives . . . The Life Instinct and the Death Instinct.” Etc.

It must have been quite something in its days. As I said, times have changed. While reading this was not a full success, I am intrigued enough to try The Stars My Destination, Bester’s much lauded second novel.

The Demolished Man is recommended for those with an interest in the history of SF, fans of good pulp, fans of comics, and Žižek. If you’re looking for consistent & elaborate SF, look elsewhere.


14 responses to “THE DEMOLISHED MAN – Alfred Bester (1953)

  1. “Freudian psychoanalysis was still considered scientific at the time” — it still is in some places — France for example…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anyway, I am confused why the presence of psychoanalysis is a bad thing — Bester is moving into rather different territory with the exploration of the self! SF is often not self-reflective, even if the lens is psychoanalysis. You run into a problem with 60/70s SF for sure!

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    • I didn’t want to imply it was a bad thing, just something that’s dated. The only other critique I wanted to give in that respect is the fact that the way Bester uses Freud is superficial, as a trick to introduce quirky/strange/new plot elements (e.g. the re-education of the daughter). Even the Oedipal explanation for the basic story is not much more than silly to contemporary eyes.

      The self-reflection in Demolished Man is limited to the open door “humans have unconscious drives”.

      I thought the political/economical warning against monopolies was more effective.


  3. It’s been a few decades since I read this, so my memory of it is quite foggy: strangely enough, I have a vivid recollection of the obsessive sentences the character kept running through his mind to avoid being scanned too deeply…
    And I wonder what I would think re-reading it now after so much time.

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  6. Following your review of The Stars My Destination, I’m now 50 pages into this and loving it — the psychic party is an astonishing application of inventiveness. I’l not plague you with progress comments, but will come back and share my thoughts when I’m done.

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    • Please do! You’ll have it finished in no time, enjoy!


      • So, well, I pretty much agree with what you wrote above — it’s thrilling, wildly inconsistent (the whole “death group” thing makes no sense since we’re told there’s been no murder for 70 years…), and beautifully inventive and clever in its writing. Possibly the highlight for me is the chapter of Powell and Reich going back and forth with their subterfuge to stymie each other wihtout explicitly doing anything illegal or questionable, but it’s generally great until the closing revelations.

        The use of psychic powers is amazing, too, in how it informs the wider society — not just that policemen can use it to see what you’ve done, but the escalation into psychic parties and the corporate subterfuge that comes as part and parcel of such a conceit. And the layout of the text in those exchanges is rather wonderful, too.

        Ah, man, so much more to reflect on, what a great little book. Thanks for the push to finally take this one down and read it.

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