The Demolished Man is a psychological thriller noir set in the future policed by mind readers. It was written by Alfred Bester and is perhaps most famous for being the first Hugo Award winner.
If you’ve read Bester’s The Stars My Destination and you’re looking for another cyberpunk classic, The Demolished Man is not that book. It has some similar themes to Bester’s better-known book and, indeed, has some proto-cyberpunk elements. But The Demolished Man is a very different novel from The Stars My Destination.
The Demolished Man Summary
The Demolished Man takes place in a future where murder has been eradicated due to the presence of Espers in society. Espers, colloquially known as peepers, have the ability to read minds. This makes murder almost impossible to contemplate, let alone get away with.
The plot revolves around one man who attempts to buck this trend: Ben Reich. Ben Reich is a super rich cartel owner locked in a commercial battle with D’Courtney Cartel. Reich decides to get rid of his competition by murdering the head of the opposing Cartel.
The first part of the novel focusses on Reich’s plan, as he tries to plan a murder when a stray thought could end his machinations. The second part of the novel follows the police, led by the esper Powell, attempt to prove Reich’s guilt. This is complicated by the fact that Powell knows Reich murdered D’Courtney, but can’t prove it as mind-read evidence is not admissible in court.
Themes of The Demolished Man
Reich as Übermensch
In Dosheivsikies Crime and Punishment Rashkilnov through having the strength to commit murder to further his goals he can become a man apart like Napoleon. Ultimately he realizes that his very hesitation prevents him from becoming the man he wants to be and that the Napoleon type figure he so admires wouldn’t even hesitate in committing an act abhorred by society if it furthered his aims.
Reich has no such hesitancy. Once he has decided on a course of murder, he carries it out without remorse or reluctance. Although his intention is deplorable, Bester makes it clear his willingness to buck societies rules is admirable.
Bester knows that society needs its outliers and those willing to shake up the current order. But he’s also aware of the danger these people pose. Winston Churchill did great things, but even his kindest biographer would accept he had the potential to do extreme damage to those around him. Bester’s meditations on this aspect of humanity is probably one of the more endearing aspects of The Demolished Man.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Reich is the amount of control he manages to exert over others. Over the course of the novel he manages to get two espers to act against their best interests, which is pretty impressive when you consider that they can read his mind.
The impenetrable mind
Peepers go through life with a greater understanding of humanity than us mere normals. Given the nature of the world The Demolished Man is set, it’s perhaps surprising that this results in one of the more uplifting messages of the novel. Namely, that the conflict between humanity is the result purely of misunderstanding. This is a nice, but somewhat trite, conclusion that does not sit well with the overall feel of the novel.
What’s perhaps more interesting is that the Peeper’s reveal another truth about the human condition. Namely, that humans very rarely understand their own motivations. Throughout the novel we see people who act without really understanding why they are doing the things they do. This is not particularly groundbreaking, and it wasn’t in the fifties, but it is still worth considering.
Further Points worth mentioning
The female characters are not well written
Alfred Bester was certainly capable of writing interesting female characters. We know that from the characters in The Stars My Destination. Unfortunately, he didn’t utilize that talent when writing The Demolished Man. All of the female characters are rather meekly subservient to the male protagonists. At times they practically beg to be manipulated by the male characters. If you don’t find this a little jarring you probably need to look at your own gender views a little bit.
This is perhaps more a quirk than anything more meaningful, but at varies, points of the novel the espers communicate by sending each other images. Images such as ‘smiling cat’ or ‘horse’s behind.’ To the modern reader, it looks like Bester has predicted Emoji’s about 60 years before they littered our phones and message boards.
Top three quotes from The Demolished Man
“Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sicknesses… Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people.”
“In the endless universe there has been nothing new, nothing different. What has appeared exceptional to the minute mind of man has been inevitable to the infinite Eye of God. This strange second in a life, that unusual event, those remarkable coincidences of environment, opportunity and encounter…all of them have been reproduced over and over on the planet of a sun whose galaxy revolves once in two hundred million years and has revolved nine times already. There has been joy. There will be joy again.”
“If a man’s got talent and guts to buck society, he’s obviously above average. You want to hold onto him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you’ve got left are the sheep.”
Should you read The Demolished Man?
As a novel, The Demolished Man has not aged well. And it’s not just because of the worrying depictions of women. The Freudian psychology feels a little old hat to the modern reader. The main themes of the novel are interesting, but not fully fleshed out or fully incorporated into the plot.
That said, if you are a fan of classic science fiction then you will find some enjoyment in reading The Demolished Man. If you haven’t read a lot of classic science fiction then perhaps this isn’t the book to start with. In either case, you may want to check out all of our reviews of classic science fiction novels and our post on the best science fiction books of all time.