They Had To Start Somewhere   Leave a comment

And for the matter at hand, so do I.

It isn’t much of a stretch to compare science fiction fandom’s Hugo Award for Best Novel to Hollywood’s Oscar for Best Picture. Winning the Hugo, in any category, is definitely that sort of big deal. The notoriety an award of such magnitude brings, Oscar or Hugo, can give the work so recognized longevity far beyond the norm for its genre.

This may explain part of the durability of the first novel to ever win the Hugo. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester was that first novel, and being such has almost certainly helped to keep it available through all the decades that have passed since its initial publication. But there’s more to it than that, in this case. The Demolished Man is a classic of the science fiction genre and, in my opinion at least, likely would have achieved that status without winning the award.

I first read The Demolished Man in the mid ‘70s, at a time when I’d just been drawn into science fiction fandom (we just call it fandom) and was focusing my writing time more on fiction than freelance journalism. As I said in a previous entry, I wanted to better understand the genre, and the Hugo winners presented a good theme by which to organize the effort. I started at the beginning with Hugo number one, and over the years that followed read a string of award winners. Years later I find myself walking that same path once more, reading now with older eyes and a more experienced – if not more mature – mind. Once again I’ve started the process with Hugo number one. I don’t recall exactly what I thought about it the first time; it’s been far too many years to say more than I enjoyed the book. This most recent reading, being still fresh in my mind, allows for more specific comments.

The Demolished Man is essentially a futuristic police procedural, set in a world rebuilt from a titanic, possibly nuclear war. (Bester is not specific.) Its main sci-fi idea is that of telepathy. The telepaths in this tale can be found in many walks of life, and are commonplace, if not mainstream. They’ve rendered the world a changed place in many ways, and among other things have made crimes such as murder all but impossible. How do you plan such a crime when there are people in law enforcement who can read your mind? It’s been decades since such a crime has taken place. But there is in this future world a wealthy business tycoon, as mad as he is ruthless, who has figured out a way to pull off the crime of murder. And the murder is, in fact, committed. Up to that point the book is merely a well-written crime thriller, the tale of a psychopath on the loose, set amid the trappings of a time yet to come. After the murder, as the investigation by the telepath for the local police unfolds, things start to change. The chief investigator is as aware of who the murderer is as the reader, but must have more than a glimpse into the mind of the killer to make the charges stick. The trick he must pull off is to provide solid proof in addition to what he’s winkled from the murder’s mind. He needs to prove the usual things, such as means and motive. As he works to do so his personal life intrudes, even as a strange battle of wits unfolds between the telepath and the equally intelligent madman. The book moves steadily away from merely a futuristic crime drama to a different sort of story altogether. Before the end, it takes a different twist that warps its genre definition in yet another direction.

The pacing and character development in this novel are of a quality that this book could still, for all its years, be held up as an example of How It’s Done. The author gives you just enough detail that, with any imagination at all, you can picture for yourself the world he has created. The characters are developed as much by their dialog and actions as by their inner thoughts as revealed by the narrator. Mr. Bester does not over-rely on any one of these to get the job done, and so character development is well-balanced. The pace starts out at a good clip, but at the end the story goes by in a flash. For all of that, the reader is never left behind as the wildest plot twist of all is revealed.

There are a few elements, especially with regard to telepathy, that are introduced a bit too late in the story to avoid seeming somewhat convenient. These items are, however, lent plausibility by what you learn of telepaths in the opening chapters, and so the matter of late introduction did not intrude while I was reading. By that point the story was moving too quickly, and I was too caught up in the tale, to be reading with a truly critical eye. These are the sorts of things that occur to you after the book is done, and you’re writing a review.

It’s abundantly obvious why this book seized the imaginations of sci-fi fans in the ‘50s. This was a fresh, new, and powerfully executed story. The Demolished Man is now considered a classic, and still draws an audience. Unlike its current reviewer, it has aged well. It’s done so, I believe, not so much because of the badge of honor it bears, but because this novel is not firmly attached to the time in which it was written. If you’ve read a fair amount of ‘50s sci-fi, there are elements of this book that you will recognize as products of the time. To the mind of the modern reader the roles of women – and there are few in this book – are a dead giveaway. Beyond what were perhaps inescapable signs of the times, however, Mr. Bester did not make the mistake of using the mannerisms of the times in which he wrote to build his characters and his world, as if the future would simply be a reflection of his day with a few bells and whistles added. The culture he creates for The Demolished Man is largely the product of its own imaginary time, with slang expressions and attitudes that derive nicely from a culture in which telepathy is not only real, but an everyday experience for many people. The characters in the book are recognizably human in their attitudes and motives, but they act out these human things within the context of another time. As a result, you find yourself reading a tale well told, but not a tale of the ‘50s. When someone uses the word “timeless” to describe a work of art, this is what they mean. The Demolished Man has influenced the work of others over the years, and what was a truly surprising ending fifty or more years ago might not be quite such a shock for some readers today. And yet, even here, the cleverness with which Mr. Bester twists his plot is enjoyable, all the same.

I’ve been sparing in details as I discussed The Demolished Man because I don’t want this to be the first of a series of spoiler reviews. My hope is that you’ll take the time and trouble to read this classic work of science fiction for yourself, if you haven’t already. The Demolished Man has surely earned its place among the great books of the genre, just as it deserved its award.

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