Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Demolished Man (1953)

Subgenre: Proto-cyberpunk? (Best I can come up with)

"I have prepared four general murder plans which may help you."

I don't know how the Hugos started, but please - nobody tell me. I'd like to keep the image in my mind, which is that one year God (or Isaac Asimov, whatever) read The Demolished Man and said: "Give that man a statue. And make it phallically shaped." And so it was. The Demolished Man is a singular murder mystery, where the even the thought of the crime has to be suppressed for fear of mindreaders, and we know the murderer but the motive is concealed from us. It is probably one of the best science-fiction novels ever written, and, somewhat painfully to us less-talented writers, it's Alfred Bester's first novel. It's also only his second-best book (but more on that later).

It's not unusual to have novels that mostly take place inside characters' heads - but in a world with telepaths, that concept has a little more oomph. You could almost think of the telepathy as a conceit to bring a deeply psychological novel into action, and while the main plot has most of the Freudian timebombs, the side characters deal with a society where telepathy may give others more insight into your thoughts than you have.

The Demolished Man takes risks, tossing out out a big clue to the mystery in the first chapter, trusting the reader to follow interlocking dialogue, and though it'd be difficult to avoid the tag "experimental" entirely, the stylistic excursions aren't there just to be cool. Bester gives the impression that he's transliterating an qualitatively different sort of communication onto the page, and this makes the society of telepaths believable and compelling. I think this is why the telepath-talk works, but the news jabber in Stand on Zanzibar comes off as forced - new languages and new cultures are inseparable. Of course, some of it comes off as silly - I'm thinking of the character named ¼maine - but on balance, it's one of the most effective pieces of text experimentation I've seen in science fiction.

First prize in that category, though, belongs to Bester's third novel - The Stars My Destination, which is a neat counterpart to The Demolished Man. Bester starts The Demolished Man with the note: "There have been men without number suffering from the same megalomania; men who imagined themself unique, irreplacable, irreproducible" - and the protagonist Ben Reich, though powerful, is unable to change the nature of his world. In The Stars My Destination, a man is motivated by revenge to a much greater end - and I won't say more than that about that novel, except to note that it exudes the same sense of comic-book energy, and has possibly the single funniest evolution joke ever.

In the process of reading the Hugos and writing these little comments, I've developed a few chips on my shoulder- and one of them is Stars, which, along with The Mote in God's Eye is one of the best novels to not win a Hugo. (No Best Novel Hugo was awarded in 1957, the appropriate year). So until anyone tells me a better 1957 novel, I'ma give an imaginary Hugo to The Stars My Destination.

  • "Like those advertising jingles you can't get out of your head." "Oh. Pepsis, we call 'em."
  • Wikipedia claims that "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"'s Man with No Face was influenced by Bester's - there's another book I have to reread.

Hugo-worthy? Duh. It's probably only an A- book - there is some clumsiness and unnecessary hyping of Reich's role in the world, but it's the explosive kind of clutter, like good Philip K. Dick novels.

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