Demolished Man: Closing Thoughts


It’s the 31st of January, which means the first month of the Great Hugo Read comes to a close. I wanted to talk about one last element of The Demolished Man then present some closing thoughts.

Espers, man. Espers. Telepathy has emerged by the time of The Demolished Man, and these Espers have found their places in society as human resources personnel, psychiatrists, cops, or any number of jobs where reading someone’s mind would put one at a distinct advantage. They’ve also formed a clearly eugenic sub-culture within the society. Want to get anywhere in the Esper guild? You better be married to an Esper and making little Esper babies. Whenever eugenics work their way into a story, I get a creepy sensation. more so when it’s introduced very casually, not called out by name, just sitting there being chill about itself. This is probably why I had such a difficult time pulling out the protagonist in the story.

Alright, that’s not entirely fair. Lincoln Powell isn’t entirely interested in the eugenics part of the guild, even though it’s keeping him from higher office. He’s been paired up with a perfectly nice girl, but he’s not interested in marrying a fellow Esper just for the sake of marrying a fellow Esper. That he falls in love with a girl who happens to have unrealized, latent telepathic abilities by the end of the book is his little win. Sure, he solves the case, but he’s also looking for some normalcy in his own life and control over his own destiny. Upgrading from a woman he’s not interested in marrying to one he is? That’s a plus.

Just so long as you ignore him basically raising her from infancy over the course of a week. Yeah, there are some issues in there one has to ignore to be fully happy for Lincoln and his ascendance within the Esper eugenics club.

At a broader level, telepathy in The Demolished Man is handled as well as I’ve seen in any book. It’s tougher than one might think, and it’s not a matter of just shifting dialogue from quotation marks to italics. It’s an attempt to explain a sense that the reader does not possess, and further explain it entire in written words. Well, not entirely in written words. Early in the novel, Lincoln Powell throws an Esper party, a more staid affair contrasted with the nigh-orgy bacchanalian about to happen in Reich’s chapters. During this party, Bester plays around with formatting to show the Espers weaving their thoughts together, overlapping sentences, laughing when someone is left dangling by her sentence being one word too long. They play with rebuses, shaping their words. Throughout the book it’s common for images sent from one Esper to another to pepper telepathic dialogue . In short, telepathy was clearly a slightly different sense, not just talking without moving ones lips.

Some final thoughts.

It’s no great secret, I really liked this book. More so because I didn’t expect to like the early books in the Read nearly so much. I’ve read other science fiction from the era and most of it felt, well, from the era. Don’t get me wrong, there are occasional elements in The Demolished Man that feel dated, but for lack of a better word, the novel felt shockingly modern in many regards. And yes, I’m specifically choosing the word “modern” rather than “timeless.” Perhaps it’s because the book captures much of the Cyberpunk zeitgeist well before anyone considered that as its own subgenre.

I know it’s thorny, attempting to go back and pigeon-hole books into a subgenre that they predate. But Demolished Man has the ascendant corporations and stratified society that became some of the Cyberpunk hallmarks thirty years later.

The book blindsided me. It won me very early on with the Esper party and the screwed up code and it all paid off with a trippy climax as the Espers demolish Reich’s world, bit by bit. The little commentaries the book makes about violence, about greed, about excess, and about capital punishment are the things I expect out of my science fiction. This scored on just about every attempt, and I’m left with little doubt why it was picked as the first book to win the Hugo.

With no Hugo awarded in 1954, we now skip ahead to Clevention, the 1955 WorldCon, and its Hugo winner They’d Rather Be Right, paired with my own choice of I Am Legend. See you in mid-February as I start talking these two books.

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