Old science fiction! It can be endlessly entertaining in wholly unintentional ways—I owe linguistic drift alone for more than a few chuckles as I explored the very first novel awarded the Hugo for best sci-fi, all the way back in 1953. Despite certain antiquated notions, The Demolished Man made for exciting reading and I can see why it still holds a place in the science fictional canon.

When you read a novel so old, with so much familiar already, it can be easy to lose track of some of the once-fresh elements introduced. This is one of the earliest sci-fi thrillers out there, reading almost as Philip Marlowe if a slightly less deranged Philip K. Dick had written it. There’s plenty of hardboiled fun set in a gripping version of the twenty-fourth century, as our two protagonists go forth to war with one another. Ben Reich, a solar system-spanning business tycoon at the end of his rope, offers his greatest rival, D’Courtney, a merger deal. When he is refused by the old man, he decides to solve the issue of his business rival in a less savoury way: “If you won’t let it be merger, then I’ll make it murder.”

Got to appreciate a man willing to go all the distance, eh? But murder is not easy in the future, not when that future is filled with Espers capable of reading your mind. Reich’s task at the opening of the book is to navigate his way through a series of challenges in the accomplishment of this goal. While it’s certainly an engaging start, The Demolished Man is at its best when the 1st Class Esper, Lincoln “Dishonest Abe” Powell enters into the fray. At this point, about a quarter into the book, the two begin a contest of wills and wits that dominates the remnant of the book; both spin circles over the other, outthinking each other in cleverly thought-out ways. Bester’s writing at the height of this is gripping, intelligent, witty—a pleasure to read. The way Bester draws Powell and Reich as the antitheses of one another, the chemistry they have when they share a space—this has to be one of the original science fictional frenemy relationships and I could not get enough of it.

A recurring gag with Powell is the line, “Who stole the weather?” which never fails to make him blush; though we never get an exact explanation, it’s certain that Dishonest Abe is to blame. This part of Powell’s personality is a liar extraordinaire, jumping into high gear whenever the policeman seems to lose focus in a more informal conversation; and the gusto with which he tells these lies makes for lies so outrageous as to be believable.

It’s not all butterflies and rainbows, alas. The Demolished Man is a wholly Freudian affair in its conception of familial relationships and in its ultimate resolution alike, which I find not only outdated, but also…yucky. In addition to that, Bester allows himself to moralize at the readers at the novel’s very end—humanist notions, to be sure, and soaked through with admirable enough sentiment. Yet to most of us readers in the early twenty-first century, moralising is a sure-fire way to lose us.

But that’s a small matter, compared to the (alas, expected) sexist portrayals of female characters. Not much in the way of representation of strong female characters—women seem to only have two-three roles to choose from: lovesick, maliciously insane, and secretaries. It’s at once to be anticipated with so many of these Golden Age sci-fi novelists and disappointing beyond measure—because although so many had visionary ideas of what society might grow to be in the future, some could only think of it in a very limited framework, monochromatic and male-dominated.

Do I recommend it? With these two big caveats in mind, I would–if you have an interest in some of the older foundations of the sci-fi genre, if you’re capable of compartmentalizing the elements that make up a book, there is a whole lot in The Demolished Man you’ll find compelling.

Originally published over at The Fantasy Hive.

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