Alfred Bester: a Driver of Tigers – The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester published his first novel in 1953 under the title The Demolished Man. It became the first novel to win the Hugo Award for the Best SF Novel of the year and has been barely out-of-print ever since.
Bester wanted to call the book Demolition!, which, on reading the story, is a more appropriate title on a lineal level, but was talked out of it by his friend and editor Horace Gold. The Demolished Man first appeared in Gold’s Galaxy magazine, serialised in three parts starting in January 1952.
At that time, it began with a prologue, a sweeping account of the beginnings of things that would be prominent in the story itself. When the book saw print in 1953, this prologue had been cut (and some other, minor, elements tweaked). This was done for economic reasons: the publishers were a small house, paper restrictions still afflicted publishing, the prologue was detachable. All later editions followed the first and The Demolished Man‘s prologue vanished. I’m not aware of any editions that have reincorporated it, but fifty years later, the Prologue appeared in the paperback collection Re-Demolished, collected in 2000.
Re-Demolished also reprints Bester’s 1972 article on the writing of the novel, in which he recalls that the original idea behind the story came from Horace Gold and that the society that sprung from that notion was argued out in long, collaborative conversations.
That idea was unique at the time. The Demolished Man is a murder mystery, a crime story, transgression to investigation to conviction and Demolition. The twist is that the crime takes place against a society of telepaths, ESPers, peepers. How can a man commit murder when a peeper can discern his intention before he kills?
Bester, whose radio work was largely in crime stories, wrote the book as an Open Murder. There’s no patient, step-by-step detection that leads the Detective to reveal that the murder was carried out in the Ballroom by Miss Scarlet with the Blunt Instrument. We see all steps through the murderer’s own eyes, we know who, how, when, where but the one thing Bester withholds until the eleventh hour is why, because not even Ben Reich knows the real reason why his hatred leads him to kill Craye D’Courtney.
Reich and Powell, protagonist and antagonist, the relationship between them and the battle they engage in is the heart of this book. Reich’s the murderer, a vicious, relentless, amoral, dominant and personally charming man, Powell the cerebral, liberal, generous, welcoming yet relentless peeper First Class Prefect of Police who, despite Reich’s every effort to conceal his tracks, knows from the outset that Reich is a murderer and who is determined to bring him to justice, and to Demolition.
They’re opposites, locked in a struggle that only one can win, yet they like each other tremendously.
The story begins with a locking heads of rival empires, concerns built up over centuries by families: Monarch, headed by Ben Reich, is being slowly pushed to the wall by the D’Courtney Cartel. Reich’s growing desperate. He’s also being terrorised by recurring nightmares in which he flees with fear from The Man With No Face. Reich believes he has only two options. Lowering himself to sue for peace, he invites Craye D’Courtney to enter into an equal partnership, a merger. He expects D’Courtney to refuse: he has the upper hand, inexorably, why should he settle for 50% when he will eventually have all?
When D’Courtney refuses, it merely confirms Reich’s expectation that he must follow his only alternative: to murder D’Courtney.
The astute reader, at this point, turns back seven pages to the exclusive code Reich has employed, where Bester has planted a massive clue: D’Courtney’s response is Acceptance. Reich, a driven man, reads it as its opposite because he expects it, because subconsciously he wants it.
Reich dominates the first half of the book, laying his plans, suborning Gus Tate, a peeper First Class who’s already his psychiatrist, dragging in the ostracised Jerry Church, exiled from the esper community for one of Reich’s earlier schemes, setting up an innocuous chain of accidental events, including an atrocious musical mindworm, all of which take him closer and closer to his goal. What strikes the most is Reich’s conception of himself as a killer, a natural killer in a society that, thanks to the openness of minds, hasn’t suffered a deliberate killing in nearly seventy years.
Powell, who’ll take the dominant role in the second half of the book, as pursuer, is a complete contrast. He’s gentle, kind, outgoing, for reasons that Bester saves as a glorious epiphany at the very end. He’s liberal in every aspect of the word, to the point that he’s the only peeper on Earth prepared to share his mind with the disgraced, near-mad Jerry Church. He could be unrealistically perfect, indeed he almost is, despite the presence of an antic humour that has him spin elaborate fantasies with a straight face in his Dishonest Abe aspect.
But the best part of The Demolished Man is its encoding of a future in which a small but significant proportion of the population can read minds, to one degree or another. Esp is represented in italic conversations, speech in plain type, but the two forms are also distinguished by the extra informality, the irreverence the espers show to one another.
Bester also introduces tricks of typography to demonstrate the flexibility and artistry of the esper elite, layouts of words in patterns. He visualises the future by spelling certain names with typographical symbols: Samuel @kins, Duffy Wyg&, Jo ¼maine. He moves at speed through an elegant, poised future world that still contains desperate danger and filth in its criminal classes, the gimpsters who are always present.
In the end, things come together, as they must. Ben Reich is freed from suspicion, until the true nature of his hatred comes out, the subconscious hatred of illegitimate son for the father who abandoned him. The beautiful but catatonic Barbara D’Courtney, unexpected witness to her father’s murder, is the half-sister he can’t, psychologically, murder to cover his tracks. She recapitulates her childhood, fall in love with Powell, and he with her, but he has to marry a fellow-peeper, to extend the gene pool. But Barbara turns out to be latent.
And when Reich, horribly adrenalised by his victory, looks to change the world in his own image, change the balance of society, Powell proves to be strong enough to be the conduit for Mass Cathexis Measure, stripping Reich down to the ultimate solipsis.
Then it’s time for Demolition. Not death, of any form, but the breaking down of Reich’s personality, the excision of the aberrant aspects of his personality, and the rebuilding of a good, decent man on the bedrock of that intellect, that drive, that ingenuity. Why kill a man, waste all his abilities, when you can re-make him?
It’s the expression of hope, of belief in what mankind is and is consistently being, and Bester ends with an overt expression of wide-eyed faith in us: …there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart…
There’s a tremendous amount to enjoy and admire in The Demolished Man, but there’s still a lot to be questioning of. This is a very Fifties book, inescapably rooted in the mores of its time, for all that it’s set in the twenty-fourth century, and it’s a very Alfie Bester book. You may well ask what else it could be, but though Bester is a tremendous driving writer, his attitudes are utterly reflective of his time.
Bester was a very psychological writer, a deeply convinced Freudian. His most vivid characters are driven by compulsions that run their lives and override their conscious concerns. We’ve seen that in Ben Reich, but it’s an underlying factor throughout the book, which frequently dips into the psychological underpinnings of its various characters, to an extent that sometimes it may seem to be a paid promotion for Siggy and his ilk.
Reich’s the most blatant, and certainly the most objectionable. He’s basically a murderous bastard, selfish to the core, a deliverer or orders that he expects to have executed instantly. He’s callous and selfish and he wants the power-rush that comes with killing and getting away with it. Reich’s the model for corporate power, his own concerns, his overwhelming wealth and his insistence on always increasing it are all that matters. He might be an incarnation of our current Tory party indifference to those who are not filthy rich, and exist only to have their little taken and given to those who already have have have.
It’s already difficult to give any sympathy towards Reich, or recognise the charm he radiates, though this would have been an easier leap to make in the times that he reflects. But there’s a second, time-influenced factor to take into account, and that’s Reich’s masculinity. He’s the ultimate man, locked into the worst aspects of his gender, and his thoughts of what he can accomplish, if not hindered by the pettiness of modern society are far too often expressed in terms of rape.
Yes, the masculine elemental force is, in the early Fifties, still represented by the notion that He can have any woman he wants, not because they will fall for him but because He will simply take what he wants, irrespective of any notion that others may want something different. “My God, we could rape the Universe!”, he says.
I don’t want to start slating Bester too heavily on this score but many before me have pointed out that he isn’t at all feminist in his thinking. There’s an undercurrent of approval of Reich in this book and that goes for his attitudes. The four principle female roles in The Demolished Man are minor, secondary characters, none of whom is what you would necessarily call enriching.
Duffy Wyg& is a professional songwriter, an exuberant, expansive girl with an overt sexuality that remains naively schoolgirlish through, and who is perpetually rebuffed. She wants to be defiled – at one point she invites Reich to beat her up – but her overt eagerness for sex, which she expresses as fooling around, is put down as being too open and therefore unappealing. You can’t ‘conquer’ Duffy, not when she’s trying to drag you between the sheets.
Mary Noyes is in a similar bracket. She’s a Second Class peeper, she loves Powell distractedly, both emotionally and sexually, but whilst he treats her as a dear friend, she is sexless to him, and Bester takes us too far into Powell’s head for us to see her in her own right: snow, mint, taffeta.
Maria Beaumont, aka The Gilt Corpse, is a caricature of sex, inflated and thus self-neutered. She’s a party woman, surgically altered to be ‘pneumatic’ (and we all know what that means, don’t we?). Maria is a cartoon of the sexually-ideal Fifties woman, big-breasted, wide-hipped, slinky and ultimately and forever unreal. You can’t expect to get an erection for that.
And lastly, there’s Barbara D’Courtney. She bursts into the book as an interruption to, a witness to Reich murdering her father, before fleeing into the night. Unfortunately, Bester can’t resist introducing her naked, under a frosty nightgown that she promptly leaves behind (an adult version of Cinderella?). She spends most of the book catatonic or in a child-like state, with little adult standing. And, as the hero’s love interest, whom he rescues, damsel-in-distress, she is blonde and beautiful and (naturally) stacked.
All these things are very obvious, and collectively they undercut not just The Demolished Man but other books in Bester’s oeuvre, as we shall see. Nevertheless, the book was a tremendous success at the time, and astonishingly influential, even to the present day.
Bester’s next novel was, however, to be astonishingly obscure.