The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester is one of those books that gets touted as "not just science fiction, but real literature," joining the works of folks like Vonnegut and Dick. But this wouldn't come as a compliment to most of the SF readers I know, the ones who describe mainstream lit as "books about people almost having an affair for 700 pages." These people, I've gathered, tend to read primarily for ideas, and might be just as happy to discuss them with the author as to read about them encoded in story form; and the authors might, too, except that these ideas tend to fall into the category of "What would the world look like if...?" (...people could log directly into the net with their brains? ...even the poor had access to nanotech matter compilers? ...the Axis won World War II?) and thus the best way to provide an answer is to illustrate, to build that world. This is of course a sweeping generalization, but it does fit The Demolished Man, in which Bester asks, "What would the world look like if half the people on earth were telepathic?" There's more to it than that, of course, but at bottom, this is a novel of ideas and that's the main idea.

However, I'm not a science fiction fan and ideas aren't the primary reason I read fiction. The primary reasons I read fiction (to the extent that I do at all, cough) are to read prose that sparkles with wit or lyricism or, best of all, both, and to see the world through the eyes of someone else, preferably someone a bit off-kilter in some way (and hey, who isn't?) I'm also a sucker for impressive narrative structure. On these counts, mainstream literature holds the edge over most SF, which often features utilitarian prose, ciphers for characters, and straightforward organization. How does The Demolished Man stack up on these counts? Let's start with prose. One rule of thumb is that if you can't or don't want to make your prose a source of pleasure in and of itself, then make it invisible; on this count Bester generally succeeds, as the story flew by without me being conscious of the fact that I was reading words on a page — except when Bester broke out the typographical gimmicks, which was far too often. More than once he uses the arrangement of words on the page to represent the "patterns" of telepathic conversation... except that the latter has no meaning that we can relate to except by analogy, and the chosen analogy of word arrangement feels like it's been motivated less by its inherent applicability than by the fact that that's what Bester can do, given the medium he's working in. Consequently, it rings false. Worse still is the other gimmick of swapping in punctuation for syllables of names (@kins, Wyg&, etc.) — there were times that only the fact that it wasn't my book kept me from reaching for my white-out.

Onward. I like superhero comics, not for the fight scenes (actually, I hate the fight scenes) but for the fact that seeing the world through the eyes of someone with superpowers certainly fits the bill where my characterization predilections are concerned. Telepathy qualifies. Now, just last fall, I gave my top score in the annual IF comp to a game about a pair of telepaths; the second paragraph of my review read thusly:

Telepathy just does it for me, I guess.  A WIND IN THE DOOR was my

favorite book for quite a while when I was a kid, and all because of

the kything.  To kythe, to be one with someone to such an extent that

your thoughts are their thoughts, their feelings are your feelings,

with distance not a factor, with language not an intermediary -- it

struck me as the most romantic, and intimate, and *erotic* idea

imaginable.  Of course, it has to be done right.  Telepathy of the sort

where characters are just speaking words into each others' heads doesn't

really interest me.  I don't want the kind of telepathy that's hardly

an improvement over a decent set of walkie-talkies.  I want the kind

of telepathy that is LOVE.

That's what this game, My Angel by Jon Ingold, gave me. Meanwhile, Bester breaks out the walkie-talkies. Sure, he tries for something more. We get images, we get smells, we get fearsome ids glowing like stars. But for each of these moments we get twenty uses of the in-skull cell phone. This isn't meant as a criticism: no one's required to write their stories to suit my tastes, especially when they're writing decades before I was born. But it explains why I wasn't swept away by Bester's take despite having gone on record in the past as a telepathy fan.

Up till now I've been treating this book as if it were a general overview of a world with telepathy; it's not, at least not at first. Bester wisely lures in the reader by initially narrowing his focus to a specific sub-issue: how do you commit murder in a world where cops can read minds? So we spend the first 75 pages or so watching a guy plan and execute what he hopes will be the perfect crime, and then hop onto the shoulder of the telepathic cop charged with putting together a case against him; Law & Order in the 24th century, almost. Plot takes precedence even over setting/idea, and characterization is little more than an afterthought — you have your guy in the black hat (rich and well-bred but a bit of a brute; charismatic in that lowlifes and socialites take to him) and your guy in the white hat (charismatic in that women pine for him and his underlings feel like they can joke around with him as they carry his jock; a decent straight arrow whom Bester attempts to lend a touch of appealing humanity by having him shtup a stewardess. Ah, the Fifties.) But then toward the end it's as if Bester can't bear not to cram in all these other ideas he has kicking around, so his previously tight narrative jumps tracks and we get a bunch of stuff about regression therapy, the Oedipus complex, the value and danger of sociopaths, and conclude with a wannabe-majestic peroration about how really there's nothing but good in humanity. Er, what? Oh, yeah, and throw in a Psycho-ending bit where the good guys sit around the office and spell out the reason why the bad guy did what he did and how they caught him.

So that takes care of prose, characterization, structure... and, yeah, it's looking like this really wasn't my thing. (Wow, it worked! I started this not having a clear idea of how I felt about the book, and now I've given it some thought and decided that I didn't much care for it. Which is what this whole exercise is, in large part, for. So yay.)

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