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Tension, Apprehension, and Dissension Have Begun...
on May 21, 2004
Bester was a writer of the 50s, the brute-force, high-tension 50s of film noir, cool jazz, Brando, Tennesee Williams, and "Sweet Smell of Success". Nowhere is the essential nature of the decade better depicted than in his two novels of the period, "The Demolished Man" and "The Stars My Destination".
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.