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Alfred Bester
Alfred Bester was born in 1913 and died in 1987. The Demolished Man won a Hugo Award Best Novel in 1953 and he received a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1988. Bester's other novels include The Stars My Destination (1956), Extro (1975), Golem100 (1980) and The Deceivers (1982).

The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester

We tend to forget, as we wait for the latest from our favourite authors, that there are decades worth of science fiction and fantasy literature to choose from. Even the best libraries cannot keep collections extensive enough to include all of the literary treasures out there. Fortunately, publishing houses occasionally offer reprints of the very best (and used bookstores can help you find the rest). The Orion Publishing Group has created the SF Masterworks series, a collection of some of the best SF novels from the last 60 years. Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1953) is the 14th book in the SF Masterworks series.

The Demolished Man takes place in a future where a small percentage of the population has developed telepathic powers. Called peepers, they have revolutionized business, government, and, most importantly, law enforcement. In fact, peepers have been so effective that no one has successfully committed an act of premeditated murder in more than 70 years. So Lincoln Polwell, Prefect of the Psychotic Division, is somewhat astonished to be summoned to a popular socialite's home to investigate both a murder and a disappearance.

One of Madame Beaumont's guests, an important businessman named Craye D'Courtney, has been murdered, and his daughter is missing. While there is no hard evidence, Polwell's principal suspect is Ben Reich, D'Courtney's chief competitor. His hunch is based on a slip of the tongue made by Reich, and an illicit peek into Reich's thoughts. For Polwell is a peeper, and while he can use his abilities to gain special insights into cases, he still needs to gather evidence to make a case.

What ensues is a complicated game of manoeuvring, evasion, and deception, as Reich and Polwell square off against one another. The game is a very interesting one, because while Reich is a very rich man and has considerable resources, Polwell has an entire network of peepers to help him gather information and obtain evidence. If Polwell wins their cat-and-mouse game, Reich is headed for Demolition, the most serious punishment society can inflict. If Reich wins, he gets away with the impossible.

The best part of Bester's story is its timelessness. The Demolished Man is essentially a murder mystery, with a cunning villain and a relentless detective in pursuit. There are few references to outlandish or dated technology (with the exception of a punch card computer!) or outrageous social practices or fashions. While Bester's future isn't utopia, neither is it a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Too often science fiction tends to paint the future either too bright or too bleak. Bester extrapolates his view of the 50s forward in time, recognizing that while things like technology will change, basic human nature will not. The story is mostly about ESPers and their effect on a modern society. Bester's vision is one where ESPers have a code of ethics and responsibility, much like doctors or lawyers. Even though his peepers can read the minds of unwilling individuals, they are forbidden to do so outside of a court of law. It's comforting to see that Bester's vision of the future includes the same series of checks and balances as our modern system of justice.

The Demolished Man is a welcome change for those tired of modern trilogies and series. It's a simple, refreshing book that's worth a look while you're waiting for your favourite author to finish off the final chapter in their latest series. Enjoy!