The Demolished Man

by Alfred Bester

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 1951
Printing: July 1996
ISBN: 0-679-76781-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 243

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I first read this book more than fifteen years ago, when I had first discovered science fiction and was making my way through everything the library had. It had been enough years, though, that I no longer remembered the details of the plot. As it turned out, on re-reading it, the only thing I had remembered was the ending.

The human race has developed telepathy, a hereditary trait that only some people have. There has not been a murder in over 70 years due to the number of telepaths who can detect people who are planning a murder, are psychologically inclined to murder, or who have performed one. At the opening of the book, one of the most powerful men on Earth decides to murder his primary business rival, and the story follows him as he carries out his plans and the telepathic detective who attempts to prove he committed the crime.

Bester was fascinated by Freudian psychology, and The Demolished Man shows it. The id, ego, and superego fit into his model of telepathy quite well, but the book is also full of the eager and wide-eyed view of psychology so often seen in science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, when authors believed we were on the border of uncovering all the secrets of the human mind and finding ways of curing or preventing all sorts of unwanted behavior. There's quite a bit of psychoanalysis that struck me as too simplified, from a perspective fifty years later, and the infantile regression in the book was both rather disturbing and caused serious problems for my suspension of disbelief.

His handling of telepathy, on the other hand, ages better. I loved the way telepathic conversations were described and shown typographically, and while it's a bit of a stretch to believe that telepath ethics would be followed even as well as they are in the story, the ethical framework and social norms do make some sense in the absence of much effective mental shielding. I also found realistic the way telepaths formed a separate subculture with their own internal laws, justice, and connections. The lack of any real civil unrest or resentment towards telepaths was a bit harder to swallow, though, particularly given the long-term plan to bring telepathy to the whole human race through proper breeding. I grew up with X-Men and other, more cynical views on the likely human reaction to a superior genetic variation.

SF elements aside, The Demolished Man is really a police procedural. The telepathy just serves as a backdrop and complication in a story reminiscent of a Columbo mystery. The reader knows the exact details of the crime in advance, including the culprit, and is shown the maneuverings by both the police and the murderer, and the fun is seeing how the police manage to put together all the details that the reader already knows. As a police procedural, it's well-paced, and telepathy and the rules of evidence in the presence of telepathy (telepathic evidence is generally not allowed) add a good twist. I enjoyed the plot, although the ending is frankly horrific, even more so given the apparent lack of horror with which it's treated by the characters.

This book didn't fare as well on re-reading as it did in my memory. I had a hard time maintaining suspension of disbelief through the dated handling of psychology, some parts of the world background rang a little false, and I didn't particularly like the ending. I would still recommend it as a classic, though. It's worth reading, if nothing else, for a treatment of telepathy that's been very influential on later fiction.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-09-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21