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This was the 1st winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in January 2019.
Here's the first review in a new series of reviews I'll be writing here at the Nameless Zine. And here's why.
I read a lot. I've posted over three hundred book reviews here over the last four and a half years, which averages out to over one per week. And I've been reading for a long time. My parents left books around the house so I'd pick them up and teach myself how to read. My mother was called into school when I was four because I could read before I started there and the teachers somehow felt miffed; after all, it was their job to teach me how. My first encounter with science fiction arrived when I was ten, with The Day of the Triffids BBC mini-series, and my mother subsequently assuaged my eagerness for more with Lije Baley, Way Station and the entire run of Heinlein juveniles. I was hooked there and then.
But there's a heck of a lot out there that I haven't read. My tastes are such that I've become an expert in niches, whether in books, music or films, but I'm often blind to the mainstream. I recently watched a compilation of the top hundred videos on YouTube; almost all were music videos and I hadn't even heard of the majority of artists. Hundreds of millions of people enjoy them daily and I didn't know they existed. Well, having now heard clips, I have no interest to seek them out, but the same thing applies on a smaller scale to genres I care about. Sure, I've been reading science fiction since I was ten and I now have a teenage granddaughter, but I haven't even read all the novels that won Hugos and that's a state of affairs I really should do something about.
So I am. And I'm starting now.
I have, at least, read enough to know that they provide a pretty solid bedrock for the genre, more definitive than the Oscars or the Grammys as representations of how history became the present in its particular space. I know that, while the winners are far from a be-all, end-all and, while all are equal in the history books, some are more equal than others, the combined list is an appropriate grounding to the genre and a good reading list for anyone who wants to explore it. To me, writing about it, Hugo winners are the context I need to have to grok the genre, and I'm running a little short.
Case in point, the winner of the first Hugo for Best Novel, in 1953, was Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, which I hadn't read. In fact, I'm not sure I'd ever read anything by Bester, who wrote many short stories and another classic novel, The Stars My Destination. But hey, the list of Hugo winning novels is just a beginning; jumping sideways is always encouraged in self-education.
What I've discovered at my first step is that the first Hugo award winning novel is at once dated and prescient, enjoyable but awkward, worthy and infuriating. I enjoyed it but had some issues with it. I get why it won, over other notables like City, The Sound of His Horn or The Rolling Stones aka Space Family Stone, but believe that much better winners were still to come. A PhilCon progress report suggests that Wilson Tucker's The Long Loud Silence was its closest competitor.
It's a science fiction murder mystery, though the mystery is something of a cheat. We begin with the perpetrator, watching him decide and plan and execute. We know whodunit because we're there in the room when he does. Then we switch to the investigator, as he attempts not to discover the identity of the murderer, as he figures that out almost immediately, but to battle wits with him in order to document the means, motive and opportunity in a way that would satisfy Old Man Mose, the computer DA of the time, a mandatory step on the way to trial and Demolition. It's a police procedural but an original one because this is a world where there are no more secrets, as telepaths can pluck your thoughts right out of your head at will, before as well as after you act upon them.
This approach to a murder mystery might sound odd but even the idea was rather revolutionary for the time. It was first serialised in Galaxy a year before Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, the earliest such book many of us have read. It doesn't feel like a Lije Baley book though; it feels more like a cyberpunk novel of the nineties, albeit one without mirrorshades or hackers. It's an increasingly paranoid psychological battle between anti-hero and anti-villain, with neither of whom we fully sympathise. The trips into cyberspace are instead trips into the inner-self through the wonders of psychiatry. Instant communication isn't done by implanted technology but by mind-readers known officially as Espers and colloquially as peepers, the talents of which have utterly shaped this particular future and its culture.
The killer is Ben Reich, a surname that surely carries meaning in such a Freudian novel—Wilhelm Reich was a notable psychoanalyst and follower of Freud until he went batshit insane. Ben is getting there too, as his dreams are plagued by a mysterious Man with No Face. He also runs a company called Monarch Utilities & Resources which is being overwhelmed by a rival, the D'Courtney Cartel and, when a last ditch attempt to save it through a merger fails, he decides to murder his rival's chief, Craye D'Courtney, a criminal act nobody has committed in over seventy years.
I found the way he does this fascinating. To find out where D'Courtney is hiding, he convinces a class 1 Esper to help him by plucking the information out of the mind of his host. That same peeper, Dr. Augustus Tate, runs interference for him while he infiltrates a party to perform the deed. To further hide his intentions from peepers present, he infects himself with what we would currently call an earworm, a simple but insanely catchy jingle. He creates an environment in which he can easily slip away from the party by manipulating them into thinking up a game of Sardines, which is played with the lights out. He disables D'Courtney's guards with a grenade that temporarily destroys the rhodopsin in their eyes, not only blinding them and knocking them out but disrupting their perception of time. And, for a murder weapon, he uses an antique called a gun, not something that most of his contemporaries would even recognise. Other clever details are left for later explanation. It's intricate.
Reich is a ruthless but charismatic man, able to talk people into actions that they otherwise wouldn't dream of, and that renders him a particularly memorable villain. What's odd is that he's the focus for a third of the book, the first third in fact, which ought to set him as our hero but clearly doesn't. We do wonder throughout if we're supposed to be on his side, which we're not, or that of Police Prefect Lincoln Powell, another class 1 Esper, as he seeks the evidence he needs to have Reich sentenced to Demolition. Part of this is because we have no idea what Demolition is, but it sounds really bad, and partly because the Espers are a strange bunch, who interbreed to help perpetuate their talents. Bester plays with our judgmental natures. We're also given the impression that Reich didn't commit this murder, when we know full well that he did, so we open our minds to all sorts of wild possibilities to try to explain that away. No, I didn't come close.
The culture of this future world is fascinating. Some aspects are very familiar, such as the decadent socialites at the Gilt Corpse's party, while others are completely alien, like the changes to society prompted by the inability to hide anything anymore, even the combination of a safe. Some are throwaway, like the odd and unexplained use of punctuation to shrink names like ¼maine, Wyg& or @kins, while others are integral, like the traumatic shunning that happens when a peeper is expelled from the Esper Guild, unable to communicate in the way that his brain needs. It's notably futuristic, with Mars and Venus colonised and an asteroid turned into a sort of theme park and holiday resort, but there are old ideas here too, like the underlying eugenics goals of the Esper Guild and the fact that the computer DA works on printed cards.
What surprised me most, though, was the pace and the fact that the whole thing's based in psychoanalysis, not a science fiction concept we tend to expect as the foundation for a Hugo winning novel. The whole thing charges along at a rate of knots, so much so that this could be adapted into an action flick, on the lines of Minority Report, if only there was an easy way to translate the telepathy shown here through the wonders of layout design into a visual element; conversations between peepers here are fragmented into columns or wilder patterns of text. And I can't talk about the psychoanalysis much because that way lies spoilers, but it's pivotal stuff and that's unusual and interesting.
It's hardly a perfect novel, but it's a fascinating one and one that's notably ahead of its time, appropriate for the first Hugo winning science fiction novel. Beyond Minority Report, its influence is obviously felt in TV shows as different as The Prisoner and Babylon 5.
Some have called out that all the characters of note are white men but, unless I glossed right over it, Bester isn't one for describing his characters physically in any sort of detail and I imagined Powell, for some reason, to be a gentleman of colour, one of interesting depth given that he has a neat second personality that he calls Dishonest Abe, which prompts him to tell complex lies as a intellectual pursuit. Certainly though, women are emphatically less worthy in this book, even when they're as sharp as the delightful Duffy Wyg&, and that really dates The Demolished Man.
They'd Rather Be Right
Well, at least this was a good, if flawed, one to start. Next month, I'll be looking at the novel generally regarded as the worst Hugo winner of all time, They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley.
Last update: 17th November, 2019