The Retro-futuristic world of “The Demolished Man” [Book Review]

The Demolished Man book cover
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • First Publication Date: 1953
  • Print Length: 240 pages

First of all, this book a science fiction classic written in 1953 AND won the first Hugo Award!! You know, Hugo Awards happens annually for the best science fiction or fantasy books, so it is rather important for the genre.

Why I enjoy some “old-fashioned” sci-fi?

Well, all of these classic sci-fis have what I would call the “retro-futuristic” view of things. If you lived in the 50’s, how would you imagine the far future? Well, reading authors from the past can give us a hint. And I think it is fun to analyze the visions of these retro-futures and ask myself if they are still acceptable today or how clever they are.

This book, “The Demolished Man”, is somewhat timeless for me.

Paperback, SF Masterworks #14. Published 1999 by Millenium

The future in question (the 22nd century) is a world in which some human beings developed telepathic powers, called peepers. And these peepers are part of the society exercising their roles normally and working as secretaries, psychologists, investigators and so on. The structure is like this:

First, the background, Mr. Reich: There are approximately one hundred thousand (100,000) 3rd Class Espers in the Esper Guild. An Esper 3 can peep the conscious level of a mind — can discover what a subject is thinking at the moment of thought. A 3rd is the lowest class of telepath. Most of Monarch’s security positions are held by 3rds.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 13, loc. 189–192

Next, there are approximately ten thousand 2nd Class Espers in the Guild,” the Personnel Chief continued frostily. “They are experts like myself who can penetrate beneath the conscious level of the mind to the preconscious. Most 2nds are in the professional class… physicians, lawyers, engineers, educators, economists, architects and so on.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 13, loc. 194–197

Finally there are less than a thousand 1st Class Espers in the Guild. The 1sts are capable of deep peeping, through the conscious and preconscious layers down to the unconscious… the lowest levels of the mind. Primordial basic desires and so forth. These, of course, hold premium positions. –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 14, loc. 200–202

The plot of the book revolves around a mysterious murder case with a disappearance, involving powerful industrialists of the society. The case is so fantastic that it is known as the first premeditated murder in 70 years. The work of the peepers has avoided these kinds of crimes, until then…

The curious thing is that the main mystery is not who committed the crime, but how, and how to gather enough evidence to prove it. I am not sure whom I would name as the main character, because the narrative starts with one point of view and changes a lot throughout the book. Well, there is the guy leading the investigations, Mr. Lincoln Powell, who has telepathic powers and is after the main suspect, Mr. Ben Reich. It is like a game of cat and mouse, since Ben Reich is very influential and uses all sorts of alibis and support from others to evade the investigation. Reich does his best to escape from the major punishment that can be inflicted in him: Demolition!

And Demolition is very scary indeed:

“When a man is demolished at Kingston Hospital, his entire psyche is destroyed. The series of osmotic injections begins with the topmost strata of cortical synapses and slowly works down, switching off every circuit, extinguishing every memory, destroying every particle of the pattern that has been built up since birth. And as the pattern is erased, each particle discharges its portion of energy, turning the entire body into a shuddering maelstrom of dissociation.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 230, loc. 3512–3515

Looking from this perspective, it is a crime thriller set in a distant future in which we have populated other planets of the solar system, we have super-fast (and efficient) space travel but the morals and motivations of the society are still the same.

Some descriptions clearly date the book, as computers humming, and tapes, and almost nonexistent portable devices (less than I would expect of an advanced future). Sometimes I was intrigued by the characters’ weird behaviors, games (and hobbies), but, hey, it is the future, who knows?

Overall, it is a very curious read, and I was awed at the passages in which we are immersed inside the characters minds with the “telepathic” action (although sometimes I got a little confused…).

The author writing style was a bit unusual to me, but it is creative, in a crazy and delightful sense.

And some final word about the existence of telepathy in the future :

“The world will be a wonderful place when everyone’s a peeper and everyone’s adjusted… But until then, be greatful you’re blind.” –Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man, pg. 225, loc. 3443–3444

Note: all the quotes in this text were cited from the book “The Demolished Man” (1953), by Alfred Bester.

What did you think? If you liked this post, please recommend it!

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