Posts Tagged The Demolished Man

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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Demolished Man: Rewarding The Reader

Standard caveat, this is writing at the end of the month so contains spoilers for this month’s book, The Demolished Man.

Can I share with you my favorite bit of The Demolished Man? Of course I can, it’s my blog. Early in the book we’re shown a code book that protagonist(?) Ben Reich uses to communicate business transactions. First, as a side note, it’s somewhat quaint that the book conjectures a future where we return to the use of telegraph-style code books for encrypting business transactions. It was written in a time before public key infrastructures and strong computer encryption, and does not appear to foresee either. I’m glad for this, because the code book led to my favorite little detail. First, the code book as outlined in the book:

QQBA PARTNERSHIP
RRCB BOTH OUR
SSDC BOTH YOUR
TTED MERGER
UUFE INTERESTS
VVGF INFORMATION
WWHG ACCEPT OFFER
XXIH GENERALLY KNOWN
YYJI SUGGEST
ZZKJ CONFIDENTIAL
AALK EQUAL
BBML CONTRACT

Using this code book, Reich sends a message:

“This one’s confidential. To Craye D’Courtney. Send–” Reich consulted the Code Book. “Send YYJI TTED RRCB UUFE AALK QQBA. Get the answer to me like rockets. Right?”

To do the hard work for you, Reich’s message decodes to “Suggest merger both our interests. Equal partnership.” Even before he sends this message, he is convinced D’Courtney will rejected it. As expected, the reply comes at the end of the chapter:

The phone chimed once and then the automatic switched on. There was a quick chatter and tape began to stutter out of the recorder. Reich strode to the desk and examined it. The message was short and deadly:

CODE TO REICH: REPLY WWHG

“WWHG. ‘Offer refused.’ Refused! REFUSED! I knew it!” Reich shouted. “All right, D’Courtney. If you won’t let it be merger then I’ll make it murder.”

See what happened there? Of course you do, because I’m drawing your attention to it. However, if you’re reading the book you have to skip back a half dozen pages to get back to the code book. It’s not shown again. The only way the reader could know that Reich has misread the code is to flip back and verify it for himself. The only clue that something is remiss is if, like me, you don’t remember any line in the code book for “REJECT OFFER.” There are several extraneous items in there, but the biggest possible red herring of all isn’t.

That aside, for the rest of the book Reich obsesses on this one element. In his chapters it is the reason for the murder of D’Courtney. He is single-minded in his quest. Which is interesting as a reader when seeing his motive is all backwards. It rewards the reader for calling the character out, for going back and seeing Reich as the unreliable narrator he is.

This little thing, so simple as to be potentially overlooked on the first read, is even how Reich comes closest to getting away with the murder.

So thank you, Demolished Man, for putting that in there for me to find, and rewarding me over the long run for finding it. Details like these are what make books more enjoyable, they’re what make rereading books possible. Miss that the first time through? You’re bound to catch it the second time, slap yourself on the forehead, and say “of course.” Those are my favorite moments in books.

Got a favorite moment from Demolished Man? Got another book that rewarded you in the same way? Leave a note.

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Demolished Man: Protagonists

With the first month of the Hugo Read winding down, I figure it’s time to actually talk about the book. The Demolished Man is the story of Ben Reich, a young plutocrat in a future dominated more by businesses than by governments, trying to get away with the murder of competitor Craye D’Courtney while being hounded by police investigator Lincoln Powell. Unless The Demolished Man is the story of Lincoln Powell, an “esper” working to pin the first premeditated murder in nearly 70 years on the boldly cocky and clearly guilty Ben Reich.

There is no question that Ben Reich and Lincoln Powell are the protagonist and antagonist of The Demolished Man. The only real question is whether the word “respectively” can be added to that description.

In the classical sense of the two terms, the protagonist is the character in the book who wants something, and whose pursuit of that goal typically, but not always, drives the plot of the story. Or, at the very least, to whom the plot happens. The antagonist is the character who stands in the way of that pursuit. Getting those out of the way, both of our main characters in The Demolished Man have clear objectives beyond the broader murder investigation plot. That is to say, while it is certainly a goal of Reich’s to get away with murder, that is just a part of a much broader goal surrounding power consolidation and wealth accumulation. Likewise, Powell certainly sees solving the mystery as a goal, but he too has broader desires to advance within the esper guild. Each stands firmly in the other’s way, and the broad goals are contradictory. If Powell succeeds, Reich will be “demolished,” a process not fully explained until the book’s denouement. If Reich succeeds, Powell will be roundly embarrassed and any future advancement within the police force or esper guild will be abruptly halted.

So the book presents us with two characters, and asks us which one we’d like to cheer for. Is our hero the sociopath businessman? It’s not unheard of, and my fondness for American Psycho prepared me for that. Or is our hero the affable bureaucrat? That’s certainly who we’re meant to cheer for in most murder mysteries. Though that’s largely because we see so little of the story from the murderer’s point of view in the typical mystery.

The Demolished Man is a reverse mystery. Like most Columbo episodes, the mystery is not “who done it” but “how will he be caught?” Unlike the typical Columbo episode, however, we don’t lead off with a murder, rather we’re shown all the planning that goes into the murder. We get to see enough of Reich’s rationale, broken as it may be (I’ll talk about this in a later post, as it’s a moment in the book I absolutely adored), and just how much work he puts into killing someone. Because it is work in this future. It’s not until midway through the first act that the murder actually happens, and by this point we’re invested in Reich’s success.

Or, at least, I was invested in Reich’s success.

Yes, I went with Reich as the protagonist. Judge me now if you will.

Powell, through this planning, is living his abnormally normal life as one of the most powerful espers on the planet. We know he’s a police investigator in a book where a murder is about to happen, so we know how he will be involved in the plot, but in these first few looks at Powell, he’s involved only with the internal esper politics and hosting fancy parties for fellow telepathics. Perhaps Powell’s distance from what I knew to be the A-plot of the story is why I sided with Reich as the protagonist. Perhaps, as Jen Brinn has often called it, I had a baby duck problem where I imprinted on the first character of agency I saw, and was willing to cheer for him no matter how morally troublesome his goals may be.

It’s the typical anti-hero problem. Can you cheer for someone who is doing all the wrong things, potentially even for the wrong reasons?

There are arguments to make on either side. And here we get a little more into spoilers, so walk away if you haven’t finished the book yet.

Do you want to cheer for the guy who gets his goals? The character who wins out in the end? Do you play lawful good characters? Then Lincoln Powell is your protagonist. By the end of the book he’s proven Reich committed the murder, discovered the motive that even Reich himself wasn’t fully aware of, and found a fellow esper to fall in love with, fulfilling the eugenic requirements of higher guild office. Rah rah, Lincoln Powell. If you want to go with the title character, give in to the baby duck imprinting, and feel sympathy when your guy loses in a rather spectacular method, join me in being bummed that Ben Reich couldn’t quite pull it off.If you’ve finished the book (or read it previously), who did you see at the protagonist? Did you even see the same duality of choice that I did? Before month’s end, I also hope to look at the use of telepathy in the book, and make some observations that probably don’t fit in full-length blog posts of their own.

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Hugo vs Nebula

It’s January 2nd, the day that we all stumble back to our routines after two weeks of disruptions, see that we made some outrageous New Years Resolutions, and look ahead to the year. This year it’s also the beginning of the Great Hugo Read. I know I’ve talked a lot about the Read lately, largely because the idea came to me so late in the year and is now kicking off. This is going to be the standard beginning of the month reminder that the Read is happening, and what the book(s) for that month are. However, I’m also going to go briefly into why I picked the Hugo as opposed to the Nebula or any other awards.

First thing’s first.

The_Demolished_Man_first_editionJanuary 2013 Primary Book: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Secondary Book: None.

I hate that we’re starting out with two months of books with availability issues. It is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. My copy of Demolished Man arrived from Better World Books on New Years Eve, perfectly timed, though I’m wrapping up The Victorian Internet (more on Unleaded) before I tuck into the first of the Hugo novels. I decided no secondary novels this month because it was a late addition to my plan, however I have picked a favorite of mine as a secondary novel for February. In the future I’ll always provide at least some rationale behind the secondary work, and I promise (a) it won’t always be something I’ve read and (b) I’ll be re-reading it if it is. It’d be cheating for me to add books just to not read them.

So…why the Hugo? I had an interesting few moments this morning flipping between the Hugo Award and Nebula Award pages on Wikipedia, each of which offers quotations from various sources about why it is the more prestigious of the two awards, and other quotations talking about the equal standing of the two. Why the Hugos boils down to a few points that have nothing to do with any rivalry between the awards (which I suspect doesn’t really exist anyways).

  1. The Hugo is older, providing more history to read through.
  2. The Hugo is fan voted, so represents what people were reading at the time. This also connects to why I didn’t include the Retro Hugo awards as primary reads.
  3. They mostly overlap anyway. Since it was adopted, the Nebula has agreed with the Hugo voters nearly half the time.

So I’m not so much playing favorites as I am bowing to seniority.

So grab your copy of Demolished Man and join in the first month of the Read. If you’re a Goodreads member, go check out the group I created over there. If it populates, I’ll keep it going, if it doesn’t, I’ll just let it languish. And now I promise I’ll stop talking the Great Hugo Read for at least two weeks. At the end of the month, we’ll get together and talk the book.

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