The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man, cover by Adrian Chesterman

The Demolished Man, cover by Adrian Chesterman

It’s 2301 A.D., and thanks to telepathic ‘peeper’ police, there hasn’t been a successful premeditated murder in seventy-nine years. Ben Reich, head of Monarch Industries, thinks the only way he can rid himself of nightmares in which he’s haunted by the ‘Man with No Face’ is by either merging with or taking over his only serious corporate rival, the D’Courtney Cartel. But when he decodes the ciphered reply to his offer of a merger and reads it as ‘refused’, his thoughts turn dangerously to his only remaining option: murder.

Published in 1953, The Demolished Man is a big-ideas book, fast-paced and full of invention, both in the small details (like Bester’s writing certain character names as @tkins, Duffy Wig&, and Jo ¼maine, or in his textual representations of interweaving telepathic conversations) and in the large (such as how you go about committing a murder in a world where even to contemplate the act is telegraphed to every ESPer you pass). Essentially a police-procedural, whose plot is divided equally between mega-personality Ben Reich’s grand and impossible murder plans, and head of the Police Psychotic Division Lincoln Powell’s efforts to nail him, it’s also a sort of on-the-verge-of-Utopia novel.

Bester_DemlishedThis is because The Demolished Man, as a book, believes in the dreams of psychoanalysis. Its peeper telepaths are, in a sense, future psychoanalysts, gifted with the ability to look beneath the workings of the persona, to layers with which the subject themselves might not be in conscious contact. And those layers — that structure of the subsurface mind — is, in Bester’s future, almost textbook Freudian.

For instance, the murder victim’s daughter, Barbara D’Courtney, is the perfect model of the psychoanalytic idea of trauma. Having witnessed the killing of her father, she goes insane, and relives (even reenacts) the originating episode whenever she’s triggered by the word ‘help’. To cure her, instead of lying her on a couch and asking her to recall her childhood, she’s mentally regressed to her childhood, and then rebuilt into sane adulthood from the ground up. (During which we get a firsthand peeper glimpse of the terrible power of the id: ‘the timeless reservoir of psychic energy, reasonless, remorseless, seething with the never-ending search for satisfaction.’ This was also the decade that gave us Forbidden Planet’s ‘monster from the Id’.) Most Freudian of all, as part of this rebuilding she mentally adopts peeper policeman Powell as her new father, and, true to Freudian prescription, falls in love with him. But, as he’s not really her father, and as she’s not really a child but a grown woman, this is a falling-in-love-with-the-father that has a happy ending — a science fictional Freudian fulfilment.

The_Demolished_Man_first_editionBen Reich (whose surname and company name both point to delusions of over-control) is, by contrast, a monster of the Ego, who in his ecstasy of victory shouts: ‘Want to look at God? Here I am!’ But this is moments before his final, devastating confrontation with the one enemy who has the power to destroy him, the ‘Man with No Face’. And who is the ‘Man with No Face’? The ego’s own, personally-tailored, perfectly-fit nemesis, the unconscious — undefeatable, because inseparable. (In response to Reich’s cry of ‘I don’t understand. I can’t understand’, the Man with No Face says: ‘My part of us understands, Ben. You could understand too if you hadn’t driven me from you.’)

The one part of the Freudian model where Bester’s future differs is in its replacement of the purely sexual libido with a more simplified ‘Life instinct’:

‘Every man is a balance of two opposed drives… The Life Instinct and the Death Instinct. Both drives have the identical purpose… to win Nirvana. The Life Instinct fights for Nirvana by smashing all opposition. The Death Instinct attempts to win Nirvana by destroying itself. Usually both instincts fuse in the adapted individual.’

Bester’s future hasn’t got the sexual hangups of Freud’s day — certainly not among the decadent rich and powerful whose company we’re mostly in, anyway — and Reich’s life-drive is far more Nietzschean than Freudian, with its urge to transcend conventional morality, ‘the make-believe rules some frightened little man wrote for the rest of the frightened little men’. (Powell at one point calls him ‘the deadly enemy of Galactic reason and reality’, implying there’s something blasphemous about his overweening lust for dominance.) Though, it has to be admitted, the terms Reich himself uses might make a Freudian stroke his beard knowingly:

‘My God! It’s lucky for the world I’m willing to stop at one murder. Together we could rape the universe.’

There’s something distinctly Jacobean about Reich, the way he strides the centre stage of Bester’s future like Marlowe’s Tamberlaine or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, chewing the scenery and breaking the props in search of some pure expression of his grand, monstrously human living essence. Despite the fact that policeman Powell is the ultimate victor — and the voice of safety, sanity, and reason — it’s Reich who’s king of this novel, and whose unnerving energy, and constant edge-of-the-moment invention drive the story, and threaten to take over its world:

‘He was one of those rare World-Shakers whose compulsions might have torn down our society and irrevocably committed us to his own psychotic pattern.’

Bester’s road to utopia lies not through technology, but through understanding the human soul, dark reaches and all:

‘Be grateful you’re not a peeper, sir. Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sickness… Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people. The world will be a wonderful place when everyone’s a peeper and everyone’s adjusted…’

And it’s by throwing light into those dark, monstrous reaches that utopia will be gained:

‘You must learn how it is. You must tear the barriers down. You must tear the veils away. We see the truth you cannot see… That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart…’

Yeah, baby — ‘we can make it if we’re heart to heart’.

The way to read this sort of old SF is to bask in the big ideas, not ask if it’s realistic, or even possible. Give yourself to the grandiloquence, the bluster, the wonder, the rush of invention — and to the sheer level of belief in utopias. That’s what this sort of SF is all about.

Astercote, The Whispering Knights, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

In Astercote (1970), when a chalice known only as ‘the Thing’, which is supposed to have protected the village of Charlton Underwood from the Black Death in medieval times, goes missing, the modern-day villagers begin to cut themselves off from the outside, and chalk white crosses — indicators of infection — on houses where people are showing the slightest sign of being unwell. In The Whispering Knights (1971), three children, bored in their school holidays, boil up a witches’ brew (or the closest they can get to it — ordering frogs’ legs from a London shop, for instance, but having to use drawings for some of the more hard-to-obtain ingredients, like the wing of a bat) in a barn supposedly once inhabited by a real witch, and manage to bring themselves and their village to the attention of an increasingly baleful supernatural presence. In The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (also 1971), a new vicar (‘Frightfully nice man — full of ideas’) decides to revive the quaint old Horn Dance of Hagworthy as part of a fête to raise money for the church roof. But the Dance is linked with the far more ancient and powerful Wild Hunt, which isn’t something any of the village oldsters want to see revived.

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Penelope Lively’s first three books for young teens are characteristic of a type of British YA fiction in the late 60s and early 70s (as well as the TV shows of the time, like Children of the Stones, or The Changes), mixing Famous Five-ish ‘what we did on our holidays’ adventure with touches of 1960s kitchen sink realism and incursions of the folkloristic supernatural. The Whispering Knights is the most Famous Five-ish, with the characters feeling a little light and cartoonish, and the adventures being mostly episodic. (It’s also the most explicitly supernatural of the three.) The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, on the other hand, has the most realistic development of its two lead characters, with the slightly withdrawn Lucy Clough and the rebellious Kester Lang both feeling like proper teenagers. And, in both The Wild Hunt and Astercote, the supernatural is more a psychological force than an external one, working through people’s superstitions and prejudices more than through actual manifestation. (Though manifestations do occur.)

At the heart of each book is an abuse of something traditional and sacred, something tied to the village as a continuing way of life, but also to the dark, dangerous forces of superstition and the supernatural. This means there’s an odd tension in each story, with the sacred thing — be it an object, such as the chalice in Astercote, or a practice, like the Horn Dance in The Wild Hunt — needing at once to be preserved, and to be hidden away or suppressed; protected for the village, and from the villagers.

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilber

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In both Astercote and The Wild Hunt, the sacred thing is abused for financial reward (even if, in one case, it’s for the repair of a church roof). In The Whispering Knights, it’s the children’s playing at witchcraft that feels like an abuse, even though it isn’t done for gain; afterwards, with the witch Morgan on the loose, it’s village life itself that comes under threat, when the newly-embodied witch marries a local factory owner, and gets a proposed motorway’s route altered to take it straight through the centre of the village. At first, the children who summon Morgan are told that she thrives on superstition, and that their best weapon against her is reason; later, it’s their very belief in her — that she represents a supernatural threat, rather than just a physical one — that means they can combat her in the proper way, and so save their village.

If there is a right way to deal with the sacred in these three books, it seems to be to revere the idea of it, while keeping the reality hidden away. This is most obvious in the attitude of Kester Lang’s uncle, the blacksmith of Hagworthy, towards the Wild Hunt. On the one hand, he says:

‘It were a great thing, once, the Hunt. Nothing to be afraid of. It were a splendid thing…’

But, at the same time, it was ‘not for a man to look on with his eyes’:

‘Because once you seen them you’re a part of them, aren’t you, girl? You’re with them under the same sky and treading the same ground. And they’re a Hunt, aren’t they? They have to hunt something, or someone, don’t they?’

This ambivalence may explain what I found to be the main fault of the first two books (and present in the third, but not as a fault), in that, in each case, once it was obvious, quite early on, what the problem was — a missing chalice, a summoned witch — the teen protagonists don’t really do anything, but sit around watching events unfold, and only right near the end suddenly clock that some action needs to be taken. The Wild Hunt has a similar delay, but in this case the time when nothing happens is used to build tension and deepen the characters’ relationships. Perhaps it’s significant that in this book the building supernatural tension causes a split between the two main characters, Lucy and Kester, and they have to heal that rift before they can act, together, against the supernatural.

Red Shift by Alan GarnerThis idea of a threatened sacred ‘thing’ (chalice, village life, dance) reminds me of the similar ‘sacred thing’ in Alan Garner’s novels — usually a nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but in fact deeply important object which comes to stand for a precious relationship, or a person’s identity, or the sacredness of the landscape itself — but in these three of Lively’s YA books, this ambivalence, this need to treat the sacred as both easily endangered and supernaturally dangerous, adds an interesting layer of complexity, even if it isn’t explored as deeply as in Garner’s novels.

The teens in these late-60s/early-70s ‘folk-fantasy’ style YA books are liminal creatures, existing on the border between the past and the future, tradition and progress, rational knowledge and irrational imagination, just as they’re hovering on the verge of adulthood. They listen to the old folks’ superstitions and take them seriously; they believe in the strange things they themselves see and hear; but they also believe these things can be changed, challenged, and faced, which (usually) the overly superstitious old folks don’t.

There’s a real feeling in these books (both Lively’s and others of the time) of being at an important cultural crossroads, with the possibility of genuinely sacred things being put at risk from a galloping, money-minded modernity, severing life from the quiet meaningfulness symbolised by village life, while also needing to take a properly rationalistic attitude towards the prejudices and superstitions of the past. It’s not, in any of these books, a clear-cut choice, and all of them end with a feeling of real peril as the forces of the irrational are let loose in a series of wild hunts (be they motorbike gangs, ancient witches in modern limousines, or stag-antlered faerie men with green-flame-eyed dogs) across stormy but beautifully-described landscapes.

To me, there’s something haunting about that cultural crossroads. Is it just nostalgia on my part? Or was there something genuinely sacred — some idea or ideal — which was lost in a battle with modernity midway through the 1970s?

(I was prompted to read these three novels after listening to The Heartwood Institute’s two albums inspired by them, both available at Bandcamp, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Astercote.)