What 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.