Learning from the Masters: 1953 Hugo Award Winner

Winner: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man was the 1953 winner of the first Hugo Award. Alfred Bester’s thrilling science fiction tale of trapping a murderer creates a universe populated by characters with questionable intentions as Bester explores what was believed about the psyche in the mid-twentieth century. My personal exposure to what can be called early (very early!) “science fiction” in literature begins and ends with Verne, whose stories did not concentrate, in large part, on the characters’ psychological motivations, reactions, or abilities (unless you consider A Fantasy of Dr Ox as exploring psychology–I highly recommend this book as it’s hilarious). Consequently, I’m not going to attempt a review of The Demolished Man, being otherwise unfamiliar with the literary and scientific conventions of the time.

I’ll do my best not to post anything spoilerish, and my notes are merely that: impressions, techniques and tactics I can quantify and explain. They are by no means comprehensive, and I suggest you attempt to get a copy of the book and read it for yourself.

A Brief Synopsis:

Ben Reich is haunted by two things: the Man With No Face who invades his dreams, and his corporate rival, Craye D’Courteney. Though unable to persuade any telepathic Espers to help him with his first problem, he does enlist the help of one in order to commit the world’s first murder in seventy-five years. But in an era in which mind “peeping” is common and the Esper Police Prefect knows Reich’s guilty, can he get away with it?

Learning Highlights:

Technical

  • Repetition of sound. There were some beautiful instances in which Bester played with the effect of language by repeating similar beats and cadences. Take this example from chapter four:

“Her moist palms beat together, and the echoes roared in Reich’s ears: Death. Death. Death.

‘Darlings! Darlings! Darlings!’ she cried.”

Bester also introduces a jingle Reich uses to mask his thoughts, a ditty that repeats over and over again as a useful tool and eerie commentary on the story: “Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.”

  • Similarly, Bester juxtaposes scene with scene using repetitive aspects. Chapter eight, a fast-paced look at “Seven days of combat,” is a masterpiece of forward plot propulsion using clipped attributions and the two main characters’ joint focus on a single subject. As the reader, we could watch both sides—the murderer and the lawman—move forward in their planning and investigations, but their respective subplots are linked by each man’s need to find an important and particular girl.

Structural

  • Bester builds suspense as the action rises by allowing Reich to slip off the radar. The story follows him primarily through the first several chapters, and then balances his page time fairly evenly with his nemesis, Powell, until chapters ten through fourteen, when we follow Powell exclusively. This could be because Reich wasn’t doing enough in his own defense at that time to write about it—he’d had already set up his plans. What it accomplished was my separation, as the reader, from the increasingly frantic mindset of Reich, leaving him as a loose cannon whose actions I could no longer predict. The suspense built, as if I had seen a spider in my room and lost sight of it.

Narrative

  • As another suspense builder and a way to surprise the reader in the resolution, Bester keeps Reich in the dark once we return to him again in the last chapters of the book. Reich didn’t know how Powell was coming after him, and while as readers we become aware that Powell is going to use a dangerous Esper trick, we are given little explanation about what, exactly, it will look like. Instead, we join Reich in his confusion, heightening the story’s suspense and pulling us deeper into the plot at a faster, more frenetic pace that mimics Reich’s panic. Ultimately, it isn’t until the trick is explained that we know for certain who has won: Powell or Reich.

I definitely got some Forbidden Planet vibes from this book, but that may be less because the two stories actually resemble one another and more because Forbidden Planet is the most prominent of the psychologically driven thrillers of the 1950s to which I can compare The Demolished Man.

Next up will be They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, the winner of the 1955 Hugo Award.

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