To Boldly Hugo – 1953: The Demolished Man
April 4, 2012 Leave a comment
Yes! It lives! The long-promised series finally arrives, to the adulation of the two or three of you who actually remembered I promised it. Mixing equal parts procrastination and consternation, this sat on the back burner for a good while, but now it’s ready to take off. Of course, at this right, the next installment should appear sometime around Christmas…
Moving on, the winner of the very first Hugo Award for Best Novel was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, which at its core is about how to get away with murder when everyone can read your mind. ESP is so common there’s even a hierarchy of “peepers,” as they’re called, with some able only to sense the most basic surface thoughts, and the most adept being able to dig deep enough to detect and manipulate the sub-conscious mind. So when businessman Ben Reich decides to murder a corporate rival in order to take over his company, he has to figure out both how to do the deed and keep any peepers from knowing he’s doing it. His plan involves hiring a rogue peeper to run interference, as well as purchasing an annoying commercial jingle to memorize and have constantly running through his head, effectively blocking his thoughts. To say Reich succeeds doesn’t really spoil anything, because the meat of the book is the pursuit of Reich by Police Prefect Powell, a powerful top-tier peeper, and their cat-and-mouse game that takes them out into the solar system and into the depths of Ben’s mind.
It’s no fault of the book if that plot sounds like any one of a dozen novels or movies that have come along since; in 1953, this was pretty heady stuff, no pun intended, and pretty damn original. That’s going to be the main challenge with reading these books, I think: putting myself in the mind of someone reading at the time as opposed to someone with the benefit of an extra fifty years of literature to choose from. And in that sense, it’s not surprising that The Demolished Man chooses a very familiar framework — classic noir — on which to hang its sci-fi trappings. Take away the future setting and the psychics and you’ve got a good old-fashioned potboiler about a man on the run from the police, complete with all the archetypal shady characters you’d expect to find in a Sam Spade novel. For a time when science fiction wasn’t anywhere near as respected a genre as it is now, what better way to ease people into your story by assuring them it’s just a detective story with a few fantastic tweaks to it?
And as a detective story and as speculative fiction, it’s top notch. There’s a very well done twist to the crime drama that actually makes sense and doesn’t exist just to allow the story to drag on for a few more chapters. And there are some big ideas Bester’s dealing with here, about identity, about privacy, and about whether a mind that could concoct such a brilliantly detailed scheme such as the one Reich comes up with shouldn’t be put to good use rather than being allowed to rot away in prison. None of it is heavy-handed; it all emerges naturally from the narrative, and if any of it seems clunky, it’s more due to the conventions of 1950s fiction writing than any failing on Bester’s part.
All while I was reading this I kept imagining this getting the big screen treatment ala Minority Report. There are plenty of similarities, and the story isn’t so dependent on technology that the advances between 1953 and today don’t render it irrelevant. Brian De Palma has apparently been trying to adapt the book for years, and I think, in the right hands, it could make a really compelling film. It’s got a timeless hook, some good action, great characters, and deals with what the best science fiction ultimately comes down to: what it’s like to be human in a world where it seems increasingly harder to do so.