Seek and destroy

The Demolished Man

We follow murderer Ben Reich and ESP-capable detective Lincoln Powell as they battle it out in twenty-fourth century America and in the timeless provinces of the human mind. Reich is an abnormality, a psychotic, who has hidden himself through tricks and bluffs from the sprawling organization of espers. The gifted have become, through Hippocratic principles, guardians of mankind's psychology. If Reich is a first-class killer then Powell is a first-class ESPer, and to trap Reich will take first-class methods. Everything hinges on the motivation, which only the espers can divine. Can they get to Reich in time?

Science fiction arguably works better as a style rather than a genre---the pure desire to present fascinating ideas and scientific speculations is more suited to an encyclopædia than a novel, but by using those ideas as a medium and source of analogies for a story is a subtle balancing act that makes good, better, bester. That the The Demolished Man is a thriller, and a fast-paced, convoluted one at that, enjoyable and rich in detail and characters is undeniable; but that it's SF? Well... SF definitely takes a back-seat at times, but if it weren't along for the ride then where would the fun be?

The novel has aged badly in places. While Asimov can be forgiven for programming his spaceships with punched cards, making them charmingly Heath-Robinson, in fact, it's hard to forgive Bester for concretizing pre-1950s psychology. Ascientific Freudian nonsense mapped out before your eyes---a telepath having highly literate conversations with someone's preconscious, for example, or a trip through their ego, id and superego like the cheap special effects in Star Trek V---stumbles, and is stuffy and unconvincing. The more highfalutin reasons for risking so much to catch Reich are also, it must be said, nonsense: Reich killed someone, which nobody has done in mainstream society for years; why abstract it further when there's no need?

But if it is nonsense (and the careful characterizations, fascinating cultural/technological interfacing, and otherwise watertight plot must surely rescue the rest from such a condemnation), it's grand nonsense, blockbuster, rollicking, thumping, readable, enjoyable nonsense. If it's nonsense, then let's have more.