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Hugo My Way – The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) #BookReview

Welcome to the first of a series of posts looking at Hugo Award winners for best novel, starting with the inaugural in 1953 and moving forward, titled Hugo My Way (Thanks Olly). Each month I will be covering one or two of these winners, talking about how the work holds up over time, looking at other nominated novels, and my overall thoughts of the work. I anticipate that our fearless leader Lilyn will also be helping out from time to time.

In a world policed by telepaths, Ben Reich plans to commit a crime that hasn’t been heard of in 70 years: murder. That’s the only option left for Reich, whose company is losing a 10-year death struggle with rival D’Courtney Enterprises. Terrorized in his dreams by The Man With No Face and driven to the edge after D’Courtney refuses a merger offer, Reich murders his rival and bribes a high-ranking telepath to help him cover his tracks. But while police prefect Lincoln Powell knows Reich is guilty, his telepath’s knowledge is a far cry from admissible evidence.

Book cover for The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester.

Title: The Demolished Man | Author: Alfred Bester | Publisher: Galaxy Sciende Fiction | Pub. Year: 1953 | Pages: 224 | Genre: Science Fiction | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: Yes

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The first Hugos were awarded in 1953 at the 11’th Worldcon in Philly.  Asimov was the toastmaster, Astounding Science Fiction by Jack W. Campbell, Jr, and Galaxy edited by H. L. Gold won for the best Professional Magazines.  The award for Cover Artist went to Hannes Bok and Ed Emshwiller.  Virgil Finlay was awarded Best Interior Illustrator.  Excellence in Fact Articles was awarded to Willy Ley.  Number 1 Fan Personality was given to Forrest J. Ackerman.  Best New SF Author or Artist went to Philip José Farmer.  There is no evidence to suggest that multiple nominees were considered, categories would change quickly over the first few years, and 1954 was skipped entirely. Still, a terrific start to something that grew up quickly.

The HugoAward for best novel went to The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, which had been serialized in Galaxy before being published as a novel. Bester would be nominated for a second Hugo in 1976 for The Computer Connection (also known as The Indian Giver).  He was also the author of “The Stars My Destination”, which is one of the earliest Sci-Fi books I can recall reading, along with some Heinlein, and one of the best.  I have some affection for the man’s work.

In the Demolished Man he posits a 24’th century where ESP has been used to thwart most crimes, such that no murder has occurred in seventy years. Murders are either spotted before the act or reveal themselves after, so reliably that nobody makes the effort any longer.

It is an interesting premise.  A small percentage of people are “peepers,” who can see into the minds of others.  These people are highly organized into a guild with a rigid sense of ethics and morality, though one or two of them stray from that path with devastating consequences.  Reich, who is not a peeper, contemplates murder from the very start, plans it out, and the deed is done early in the story.  Then in walks Prefect Powell, who is the peeper policeman leading the investigation.  Reich has taken great pains to shield himself from peepers but trips up at the start and Powell knows he is guilty of the crime.  But, in this far future, while peeping can be used to uncover incontrovertible facts it cannot serve as evidence or testimony.  Thus, the game is afoot with Reich trying to avoid being convicted and Powell chasing after him with the resources of a government and Guild of peepers.  The price of committing the crime is Demolition, which hangs over Reich without explanation throughout the story.  Not death. Not prison. Rather, Demolition.

As an inverted detective story the work moves forward based on the cat-and-mouse piece of action bringing in a diverse cast of characters.  There is a very noir feeling to it, and not just from the crime aspect. Most of the characters are either unappealing or women, in which case they are two dimensional.

That is the front story but the real story isn’t kept in the background much at all, in fact, it begins explicitly in the very first paragraph. Bester is focused on the subconscious, motivations for why we do what we do, but motivations that are buried so deep that we don’t understand them ourselves. He dives into the notion that people are two-faced, good and bad, male and female, lively and self-destructive.  Duality, in different forms, appears over and over again. Today I found it ham-handed.  But standards change over time.

It is always interesting to look back and see what was anticipated and what was not.  In my opinion I found the Internet, Google, tasers, and the first use I know of the word “hater.”  We also get great technology that hasn’t yet appeared such as almost instantaneous ship travel around the solar system and faster-than-light communications.  As is always the case some misses are mixed in, such as public phone booths and (again in my opinion), piezo-electric storage devices. 

Bester experimented with visual presentation through his writing, and some early examples appear here.  Some of the characters are named Wyg&, @well, and ¼main. I have no idea why he made these choices, but they are interesting.  He also imagines that groups of peepers who communicate without speaking play social games where their words form geometric patterns that combine to make puns, or puzzles, or show general cleverness.  These images appear on a few pages and are interesting to look at without becoming distractions to the overall work. Largely they are clever ideas that never go anywhere.

I think all in all the work holds up over time, despite being written almost seventy years ago.  There are a small number of social references that would be less welcomed today.  The word “Fag” is used once, as is “WigWam.”  He would rely on Native American culture as a significant aspect in The Computer Connection, written twenty years later, and originally published with the unfortunate title “Indian Giver.” I don’t recall that work being incredibly insulting but I haven’t read it in at least thirty years. I think this is a fine example of Golden Age Sci-Fi and highly recommend the work if you are interested in that genre. It’s not as good as The Stars My Destination, however, Bester was a more mature writer by that time.


antiquated views on mental health, slightly creepy though complicated presentation of age-inappropriate sexual attraction

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As I mentioned, the Hugos skipped 1954 and in 1955 gave the Best Novel award to “They’d Rather Be Right” by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley.  This excites me because not only have I not read that work but I don’t recall ever hearing of the authors.  The work was also published as “The Forever Machine” and serialized originally in Astounding Science-Fiction. Finally, Jo Walton has nominated it for the best insider trivia question for Hugo best novels. I look forward to seeing if I agree with her opinion.

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