In the year 2301, the wealthiest man in the universe is determined to commit murder in a world in which telepaths are used to detect possible crimes before they can happen. Reprint. 10,000 first printing.
The premise of "The Demolished Man" is simplicity itself: how do you go about committing murder in a society where the cops can read minds, and alternately, how does the telepathic cop nail his man when he knows damn well he's guilty but has no evidence? A not unusual SF premise, more compelling than most, perhaps. But what makes "Demolished Man" worth reading a half-century on is its milieu and style. Bester was that rarity in SF, a writer of true sophistication. There is not a page of this novel that does not glow with that sense of knowledge of the world beyond the pulps. Some of us, alas, grew up thinking that this was what SF should be. (William Gibson learned from this novel--though not enough.) There was scarcely room for this kind of thing in the 50s. There is no room for it now, nor any sign that there ever will be again.
In its final pages, "Demolished Man" makes a metaphysical shift from detective story into something else, a near-religious leap of transcendance that could only be portrayed in science fiction, and then only in the best. A widely-known feature of the genre is the fact that its writers tend to stick to well-worn paths, grinding out the same ideas over and over. When Bester finished with the theme of "Demolished Man", no writer touched it ever again. Nobody dared try.
Bester's first novel (after years of short stories, comics, and radio) also won the first Hugo Award, and deserved it. This is cyberpunk mayhem thirty years before anyone invented the term, a lightning ride through language, deception, and murder. The book I find it most closely resembles is Paul Cain's crime thriller _Fast One_, duplicating its speed and moral relativism.
In Bester's imagined future, Espers (telepaths) make murder impossible to commit, so mad industrialist Ben Reich just has to find a way to get away with it. The plot follows policeman Lincoln Powell, a powerful esper, in his quest to nail Reich, and Reich's delirious evasions. At stake may be the whole of society.
I have only one negative thing to say for this book: it still isn't as good as Bester's other great novel, _The Stars My Destination_. Buy both of them today and plunge into the best of science fiction.
Some complain that the Freudianim of this book is wrong. Alas, current cognitive therapy and brain sciences have come to the conclusion that a lot of what Freud said is right. They don't say it in those words, in fact they try to tame Freud into a subset of their theories, but he still hit the nail on the head.
This book was a pleasure to read. Read more