Archive for January 22nd, 2013

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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