Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Imagine a world without murder.  Then use it as
the setting for a murder mystery.   

That's the challenge Alfred
Bester sets himself in his
unconventional cult classic
The Demolished Man, the
1953 novel that was the
first winner of Hugo Award.  
The book is an oddity—half
science fiction and half
detective story, mixing in
generous doses of the police
procedural genre while antici-
pating elements that would
come to the fore in later
cyberpunk lit.  With its
fast pace and campy atmospherics, the book also

reminds us that Bester made his living writing
for comic books, radio and television.  

The Demolished Man is set in the world of the
year 2301, when police have an easy time of it.  
No successful premeditated murder has been
committed in 79 years.  The existence of a cadre
of mind-readers—known as "Espers"—make it
impossible to hide criminal intent from the
authorities.  A murderer will either be stopped
before the crime is even committed, or
apprehended immediately afterwards.  In such a
world, the clichéd phrase about "getting away
with murder" has become a pure metaphor,
describing a state of affairs that could never
occur in the real world.

In this environment, Ben Reich is caught up in a

heated conflict with his business rival Craye
D'Courtney, owner of D’Courtney Cartel.  Reich's
firm, Monarch Industries, is on the verge of
bankruptcy, and he feels rebuffed in his attempts
to propose a merger.   In anger and desperation,

he decides to kill D’Courtney.

Okay, Bester doesn’t go in for subtlety—already
we have a Reich and Monarch going up against a

Cartel.  You’ll hardly be surprised to learn that
the hero detective in this book is named Lincoln
—Lincoln Powell, a Class 1 Esper and Prefect of
the Psychotic Division of the police.  In case

some readers miss the presidential allusion,
Lincoln sometimes falls into a habit of telling
outlandish tall tales—taking on an alternate
persona, one that the policeman himself calls
"Dishonest Abe."

Mr. Reich needs some expert help if he is to plan

and execute a murder without coming to
Powell's attention.  He enlists the support of Gus
Tate, another Class 1 Esper and psychiatrist who
is a renegade among the mind-readers.  When he
is around Reich, Tate can block the efforts of
other Espers, and can also snoop around in
surrounding minds in order to assist in the
plotting and execution of the crime.  But Reich
also needs some way of stopping the brain
peepers when Tate is not on hand—and here he
relies on an inane musical jingle, one of those
maddening tunes you can’t get out of your head.

Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun….

Bester no doubt wanted lyrics whose sheer
inanity would keep mind-readers at bay.  Too
bad he didn't know about Rebecca Black’s

With these peculiar supports, Reich is prepared

to kill his adversary.   He makes his move at a
fashionable party, but the assault is observed by
a young woman, D'Courtney’s daughter, who
runs away from the scene of the crime.  Now
Lincoln Powell and Ben Reich are caught up in a
race to find the missing eyewitness.   The action
is enlivened by the some jive James Bond-ish
gadgetry—flash grenades that destroy the retinas
of unfortunate on-lookers, harmonic guns that
kill with soundwaves, etc.  

The book is zany, and moves ahead with the

brash momentum of a superhero comic book.  
But Bester tries to impart some psychological
gravitas through generous doses of Freudian
concepts and plenty of psychiatric jargon.  Even
the punishment for serious crimes draws on a
therapeutic worldview—instead of the electric
chair, the legal authorities of the year 2301 rely
on 'demolition,' in which the offender’s
personality and memories are extracted, leaving
behind a new substratum for healthy re-
education.  Indeed, Bester’s original title for the
story was Demolition!, and he only switched
The Demolished Man at the urging of editor
H.L. Gold.

Many readers will find this story maddening and

unsatisfying.  Josh Wimmer has cited The
Demolished Man
as an evidence for why
highbrow literary types look down on sci-fi—not
without some justification.  "Science fiction was
ghettoized for a long time because at first, it
deserved to be," he argues, and compares the
implausibility of Bester's story with Ernest
Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which
won the Pulitzer the same year The Demolished
Man took the Hugo.  The comparison may be a
bit unfair—Hemingway never set a novel in the
24th century—but even fans of Bester's work can
hardly avoid recognizing the slapdash quality
that permeates the novel.  Nor does the use of
reheated psychobabble serve as an adequate
substitute for real psychological depth in
Bester’s characters.

No, this is not great literature. That said, the

madcap energy of this book can’t be denied.  And
the concept itself of a man plotting the perfect
murder in an age when premeditated crimes
have been eradicated is a thought-provoking
one.  I’m not surprised that, a few years later,
Philip K. Dick—and later Steven Spielberg—drew
on a similar concept for Minority Report.  Bester never
freed himself from the pulp fiction
and TV script formulas that cast a long shadow
over most genre works of the era, but he was a
master of these very same recipes.  As a result,
anyone wanting to understand why action-
packed genre tales had such a large following
during the middle decades of the 20th century
could hardly do better than to make the
acquaintance of this author and his most famous
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The Demolished Man
By Alfred Bester
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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Conjure Wife

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Hell House

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Cloud Atlas

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Ada, or Ardor

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Store of the Worlds

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Dying  Inside

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Snow Crash

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More Than Human

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Some of Your Blood

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
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Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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