Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bookworming: The Demolished Man

The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester, ***
Here I revisit a classic of science fiction that I didn't care for when I was younger. Now, I still have mixed feelings about it, but I can appreciate the art of the thing much more. The Demolished Man is a sci-fi take on the police procedural, starting off mostly from the perspective of the antagonist and switching more and more to the protagonist as the story unfolds. The hook is a great one: how do you get away with murder when people can read your thoughts. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't really hang on that thread. What we get instead is a somewhat disjointed story that relies a little too much on the psychology of the characters to ever form an intelligible whole. Bester doesn't cheat, all the parts of the mystery are there in front of you, but the ultimate resolution, as you might expect in a world of telepaths, doesn't depend on the procedural aspects. That and the shifting perspective leaves the story feeling somewhat less coherent than I prefer. And of course, there is the oft-decried casual sexism inherent in the early fifties.

That said, the good parts tend toward brilliant. I last read the story before the Internet age was upon us, and now I find it a little jarring to open a book from 1953 and see characters with names like @tkins (Atkins) and &erson (Anderson). The typography used in the layered interweaving conversations between telepaths is art on its own, though sadly it dries up early in the story. The theme of the super-capitalist using money and access to literally get away with murder has some ring in these times, but it's also hardly an original thing anymore.

And that really seems to reflect how I feel about this book, for everything great about it, something keeps it from going to that next level. As a piece of world-building from one of the science fiction masters, I can certainly appreciate it, but as entertainment, it isn't perhaps what it used to be.

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