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Friday, March 31, 2023

The Reading List: Hugo Award Winner "The Demolished Man" by Alfred Bester


The first Hugo awards, the preeminent science fiction literature award, were given out in 1953, with seemingly little vision of how big they would eventually come to be.  With an odd lack of prescience, given the genre they celebrate, there were no rules laid down for the awards in subsequent years, and in fact the 1954 Worldcon skipped them altogether.
Nevertheless, in the intervening years, the Hugos have become a high water mark for science fiction.  While the winners for best novel reveal a few authors that have hardly become household names for all but the most ardent science fiction readers, generally the list of winners reads like a literary pantheon of the genre, and for good reason.  The works that have won this award have influenced not only the development of the genre, but in many cases affected the courses of literature, science and culture.  From its pulp beginnings, science fiction quickly grew into a literary exploration of our ideas of possible futures, of problem solving, and of our relationships with technology and with our own and other species.

The first Hugo award was presented to Alfred Bester for his novel "The Demolished Man".  Referring to the judicial punishment of "demolition", the destruction of memory and personality in response to major crimes, the book is an exploration of psychology couched in a police procedural.  
The novel comes ahead of a long line of imitators that continue to this day to mostly fail at recapturing its formula.  It betrays a certain influence from the noir fiction of the 40s in its use of detective tropes, but it largely remains its own thing due to its use of fantastic ideas such as "peepers", ESP talented people who are able to read minds and thereby prevent or solve crimes, and the aforementioned demolition.  
In its use of these ideas and its integration of crime fiction with science fiction, "Demolished Man" at times seemed like an early indicator of the work of Philip K. Dick, particularly works like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and "Minority Report"; it is high concept work with a gritty, street-level perspective on the world in which the story exits.  Like any older work of science fiction, it has to be taken in the context of its time to avoid direct comparisons with later works that play with similar ideas.  With that in mind, it functions well as a futuristic crime novel that successfully provokes thought about the possibilities and dangers of the world it posits.
At heart, though, it is the psychology of the characters, especially the protagonist Ben Reich, that drives the story, and in that it gives the story a timeless appeal.  The same set of characters could work in almost any setting, even without the benefit of the futuristic trappings.  The story could have been told equally well by James M. Cain or John D. McDonald as a straightforward murder mystery with a few simple adjustments, and I think it may be that universality that made it deserving of the Best Novel award that year.  It is a story that appeals and intrigues even out of its context because it is about the minds of its characters, and that psychology remains unchanged regardless of time and place.

Apropos of nothing, the one line that sticks out to me most from the novel, one that I have copied into my digital commonplace book is the following:  "Make your enemies by choice, not by accident."

"The Demolished Man" is available to buy from Amazon, or you can read it for free at Archive.org

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