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.

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’s ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, mostly notably being his children.

The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ

Russ's The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

I bought Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx a while ago because I read somewhere of it having affiliations with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories. For a long while it sat on my ever-lengthening to-read shelf, because whenever I picked it up for a shall-I-read-it skim, it seemed more SF than sword & sorcery. So I did some Wikipedia research — it turns out Alyx the Pick-lock is referred to in “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” and “Under the Thumbs of the Gods” — then started reading.

The first Alyx tale, “Bluestocking”, has several Leiberish resonances: a Lankhmar-like city called Ourdh, whose name recalls Leiber’s Ourph the Mingol (later stories make it clear the setting is Earth at the time of ancient Greece); most of the story has its two main characters adrift on the ocean in a small boat, reminiscent of Leiber’s “Their Mistress, the Sea” (though that story was first published in 1968; “Bluestocking” appeared in 1967); and at one point Alyx mentions having known a “big Northman with… a big red beard — God, what a beard! — Fafnir — no, Fafh — well, something ridiculous.” “Bluestocking” begins with pickpocket Alyx being hired by a slightly spoiled rich girl, Edarra, to help her flee an impending marriage. During their time together, Edarra loses her more refined, delicate edges, and Alyx gets to kill a sea-serpent and a trio of pirates. In the following story, “I Thought She Was Afeared Until She Stroked My Beard”, jumping back in the character’s timeline, Alyx leaves her abusive husband and pairs herself with a far less chauvinistic pirate — though she still has to teach him a lesson or two in true equality, when she matches his body-count in a bloody fight.

Joanna RussAs in so many sword & sorcery tales, what these initial stories are about is defining a hero. And here, unlike the usual S&S strategy of defining a hero by what he or she fights, Alyx is more often portrayed in contrast to a companion — the spoilt Edarra in “Bluestocking”, the well-meaning but still slightly prejudiced Blackbeard in “I Through She Was Afeared…” In these first two stories, I felt that was pretty much all that was happening — they were far more about defining Alyx as a character than telling a story with her, though this defining is nevertheless an important step when a writer is trying to do something new. As Russ says in her biographical note at the start of the Women’s Press collected edition: “I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.” (This was the late 1960s. As Aldiss & Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree: “Russ’s Alyx stories were something quite new to the genre. Alyx is a female rebel. A thief and adventuress. A highly competent and aggressive woman. She was a revolutionary fictional character, challenging the competent male/wilting female syndrome that had dominated the magazine genre for forty years.”)

The first tale that really worked for me is the third, and the most sword and sorcery-like of the lot, “The Barbarian”. Here, Alyx is hired (as so many S&S heroes have been down the ages) by a sorcerer in need of a bit of thievish skill and swordly brawn. This story has some of the best writing in the series, for instance when Alyx leads her sorcerous employer through the benighted rooms of a building they’ve broken into:

“Her fingers brushed lightly alongside her, like a creeping animal: stone, stone, a gap, warm air rising… In the dark she felt wolfish, her lips skinned back over her teeth; like another species she made her way with hands and ears. Through them the villa sighed and rustled in its sleep. She put the tips of the fingers of her free hand on the back of the fat man’s neck, guiding with the faintest of touches through the turns of the corridor…”

The ending shades into science fiction, but in the well-established manner of the Unknown school — with a primitive protagonist encountering advanced technology and defeating it through uneducated but nevertheless scientific thinking. I’m not really sure if that’s cheating or not, but it works, as a story, and the goodie wins, which is the main point…

Picnic on ParadiseThe next tale, “Picnic on Paradise” marks a break in two ways: it’s much longer than the previous stories (it was initially published as a separate novel, in 1968); and in it, Alyx has been whisked into the future by the Trans-Temporal Military Authority to guide some tourists across hazardous alien terrain to the safety of a base where they can be taken off-world. Things go wrong, of course, but not before Alyx’s relationships with the leisure-softened, over-psychoanalysed tourists doped up on “stimulants and euphorics” have been stretched past their plastic limit. This short novel is, really, an expansion of that initial story where Alyx was stuck in a wilderness (the ocean) with a pampered rich girl, whom she brought into more vibrant contact with the feeling of being alive. It’s a sort of science-fictional version of Crocodile Dundee (not at all meant as an insult — Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala would be a similar comparison). Like the best sword & sorcery, the Crocodile Dundee type of story is about getting back in touch with far more real, far more meaningful and basic values through a bit of down-and-dirty, barbaric common sense. But here, the picture isn’t as clear cut as in Crocodile Dundee, as, ultimately, Alyx gets as affected by her contact with these over-civilised future civilians as they do by her. But we do get, at last, her heroic credo:

“…nobody ever let me do anything in my life before and I never let that stop me.”

Alyx doesn’t appear in the final story in the collection, “The Second Inquisition”, which seems to have been included here only because it mentions the Trans-Temporal Military Authority, unless I’m missing something. Set in 1920s Earth, where the narrator’s family are, for some reason, putting up a visitor from the future, it reads very much like Gene Wolfe at his most oblique — peppered with a stream of apparently inconsequential little details which made me feel that, if I only I knew which detail was significant and why, the whole thing would become clear, but as I know neither which nor why, I wasn’t entirely sure it was worth the effort to read it again to find out.

The_Adventures_of_AlyxI found my level, Alyx-wise, with “The Barbarian”. It’s the most sword & sorcery-like tale, though made all the more refreshing by its emancipated protagonist. Alyx constantly gibes and annoys her employer, never taking him as seriously as he thinks he ought to be taken, questioning his orders and being disobedient, then puncturing his technological/magical superiority with a bit of very non-technological/non-magical violence. Like all sword & sorcery heroes should.

Alyx, as a character, was a sort of experiment on Russ’s part, and once she’d proved herself in the old-style arena of sword and sorcery, there was nothing for it but to move onto far more of-the-times science fiction in “Picnic on Paradise” — only for her to be left out of the picture altogether by the time of “The Second Inquisition”. I’d have loved to have read more stories in the style, and the world, of “The Barbarian”, but I think that, in writing it, Russ had made her point and it was time to move on.

Sky

SkySky (first broadcast in 1975) manages to tick just about every box in the 70s kids’ TV checklist: standing stones, the next step in human evolution, psychic powers, Merlin, magic, advanced technology masquerading as magic, warnings about mankind’s over-reliance on technology, environmentalist predictions of coming disaster, even a hint of class tension.

It starts with the blue-eyed, golden-haired alien Sky (and if he looks a bit like an Axon, perhaps that’s because the show’s writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, wrote The Claws of Axos for Doctor Who) appearing in the middle of an English forest, only to be immediately attacked by the surrounding greenery. Found by young Arby Venner, the leaf-smothered Sky pleads: “Take me away from living things.”

An alien and far-future time-traveller, Sky has missed his intended era, and now finds himself rejected by the very life-force of a world he does not belong to. Begging to be taken to “the Juganet” (“The Juganet is a circle. The circle is a machine. The machine is a crossover point. The point is a paramagnetic intersection. That is where I must be.”), which he can use to jump to the correct time, he claims (when asked by Arby’s sister, Jane) that despite his seemingly helpless state, “I suppose, in your terms, I am to be a god.”

Sky_03

Meanwhile, the “animus of the organism” — the riled life-force of our world — manifests itself as the black-cloaked Ambrose Goodchild, whose purpose is to track down and do away with this unwanted alien by any means, be it by summoning more smothering greenery, or posing as a surgeon so he can operate on him. Arby, Jane, and the slightly posher boy next door, Roy Briggs, do their best to help the importunate Sky, despite having no idea what he’s on about most of the time.

Luckily, there’s a mad Welshman to hand. (And that’s another 70s kids’ TV box checked: mad Welshman who knows.) Old Tom may be touched in the head (“He’s supposed to be simple.” “No. It is you who are complicated.”), but he can hear Sky’s thoughts and see Sky’s telepathic pictures, and he once visited a place that looks like this Juganet thing, though he can’t recall where, or what, it was. So Arby and Jane borrow their dad’s Land Rover (they’re late teens: Arby drives a Land Rover and Roy’s got a motorbike), kidnap mad Tom and the hospitalised Sky, and take them on a jaunt to Glastonbury Tor. Which, it turns out, isn’t the Juganet, but is getting close.

Sky_02

Sky is a bit like E.T. Only, whereas E.T. isn’t above a little emotional bonding while he tries to phone home, Sky is only interested in his human helpers when he wants rescuing. Once he’s recovered, he wants to be left alone so he can find the Juganet and leave this age that he knows only — and ominously — as “the Decline”. His task is to help humankind after “the Chaos”, not before it. As far as he’s concerned, before it, we’re beyond help.

Sky is, it seems, intended as a chastening reminder that our modern age is but one tiny step — and, most likely, a mis-step — on its way to some future evolution we can’t even begin to appreciate. He believes “It is the destiny of all intelligent beings to stand outside space and time,” and that modern man’s mistake is to “believe in machines”:

“You do not reach the stars with rockets, any more than you invent radios by shouting at the sky.”

Goodchild, on the other hand, seems even more reactionary:

“…the way to intelligence is the way to destruction… You have made man an alien. An alien force throttling life on this planet.”

Sky_06

Sky could almost be a prelude to The Changes, shown at the start of the same year (Sky was ITV, The Changes BBC). The coming “Chaos” could be the “Changes”, in which a Merlin-like force (Goodchild’s first name, Ambrose, links him with Merlin) initiates a UK-wide revolt against machines. Both shows seem to be both rejecting hippie back-to-nature idealism (Sky is taken in, briefly, by a hippie couple awaiting a mystic traveller foretold in the prophecies of Merlin; he repays their kindness by disillusioning them, then attracting enough creeping greenery to destroy their caravan), while also wagging the finger at our love of technology.

What happened between the 1970s and the 1980s, when the whole idea of technology as a step too far seems to have been quietly dropped? (As were standing stones, and mad Welshmen.) There’s a real feeling that these 70s kids’ TV shows — Sky, The Changes, to a lesser extent The Moon Stallion — were grappling with issues that aren’t to be found in their 80s equivalents (The Moon Dial, Elidor, The Box of Delights), which were just as, if not more, magical in content (no more technology masquerading as magic, though — it was pure magic all the way), but don’t seem to be addressing social issues beyond the coming-of-age adventures of their protagonists. And so, while perhaps those 80s shows are that much more timeless, they don’t necessarily have the unity, depth, and cultural relevance of the best of the 70s ones. Or is that just my own nostalgia?