I just finished reading The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester. I am disappointed.
Bester’s The Stars My Destination, I love. I read it last year for the first time and it’s now on my top 10 sci-fi list, right next to Dune and Illuminatus!. The Demolished Man however, not so much. As Moff pointed out on io9 the other day, some sci-fi books form the mid century “Golden Age” deserves to be left in the genre ghetto and The Demolished Man is one of them. It won not just a Hugo, but the very first Hugo, meaning that at some point, this was seen as an example of the best that science fiction literature had to offer. If that’s not a damning case for keeping the sci-fi ghetto open, I don’t know what is. Even put in the perspective of its time period, there’s some awful clichés running rampant in The Demolished Man: pointless sci-finess, absurdly shortsighted technological innovations that run headlong into random leaps in logic and blatant misogyny, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the last Michael Bay movie.
Aside from stark 50’s gender roles persisting well into the 22nd century, there’s the random gadget porn: every bit of information not gleaned from someone’s head by a psychic is encoded on gemstones. Unless it’s output by a monster supercomputer, then it’s spit out on a length of paper like a ticker tape machine. And input on frickin’ punch cards.
And then there’s the awkward futuristic slang. Apparently, in the 22nd century, no one walks or runs anywhere. They Jet. Every time someone said to another character to Jet on over somewhere or that they were about to jet off someplace, I expect them to leap across the road flashing jazz hands. Because once a Jet, always a Jet. And in the future, everyone’s a Jet. Unless you’re the protagonist, then you’re a Shark. Or a psychopath. Whichever. Psychopaths who have easy access to antique guns that are described as nothing more than a knife-pistol that resembles a flower. Is this a magnum with a bayonet and orchid scope? A six-shooter/Ginsu/daisy? A long lost Salvador Dali sculpture? Whatever it is, it shoots weaponized jello.
And the psychics. Oh Lord, the fucking psychics! They’re called peepers here because psychics didn’t sound silly enough. I’ve never fully grasped the mid 20th century fascination with pseudo-scientific justifications for psychic powers, but man is it tired. It was tired before The Demolished Man and really, this should have ended it. But somehow, we still ended up with Jean Gray and random psychic powers in the Twilight Zone. Here in the Demolished Man, we have the Esper Guild, which is a cross between a trade union that covers all trades and a political party. Apparently, everyone from Doctors to HR personal are required to be Peepers, which begs the question of what everyone who isn’t a psychotic CEO does for a living. Drive flying taxi cabs, I guess. In a mere 200 years, we’ve not only discovered that a large percentage of the population is active or latent psychics, but they’ve completely reworked human society to the point where they’re pretty much in charge of everything. Which I guess might be considered subtext or something verging on a political or philosophical statement, if it amounted to anything more than an excuse to play with concrete poetry and fancy typography.
Now, I’m not opposed to soft sci-fi. I like a little whimsy and poetry in my speculative fiction and mostly eschew the hard SF. But a psychic who-done-it story shoehorned into a solar-system spanning romp with rocket ships and one of the more squicky romance subplots is just too soft. It’s nice however, to see that Bester did grow as an author and by the time he got to The Stars My Destination, had lost the fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis and reeled in the gadget porn a bit.
I give it 2.5 gleaming silver rocket ships out of 4. Some of the modernist prose is effective and Bester can tell a gripping story, even if it doesn’t add up to much in the end.