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.


To Live Again by Robert Silverberg

The SF Gateway is open! And for a while, recently, I’ve been feeling the urge to re-read Robert Silverberg’s To Live Again, a book I first read in the rush of sci-fi enthusiasm that followed on from attending the 1987 Worldcon, Conspiracy (a rush that also led to me reading Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger!, two of my favourite SF novels). In fact, To Live Again, a book about a near future in which human personalities can be electronically downloaded into living human brains as additional personas, is quite an apt choice for a first purchase from a service that seeks to preserve, and offer for download in a variety of ebook formats, the entire back catalogues of as many SF authors as it can sign up.

To Live Again was first published in 1969, and manages to blend a cultural mix of the occult faddishness of the 60s (the persona-storing Scheffing process has led to a revival of interest in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as the building of techno-savvy lamaseries in the hills of Los Angeles) with the more hard-nosed, slick corporate high life of the 70s. Silverberg’s protagonists are all picked from the highest level of the business world of his future USA, including members of the mega-rich Kaufmann family, and their main rival, the upstart magnate John Roditis. The story starts after the death of super-businessman and family patriarch Paul Kaufmann, with the question of who will have the honour of receiving his persona as yet undecided. Only two people in the world are deemed of strong enough personality to withstand the presence of such a powerful man. The trouble is, Mark Kaufmann, new head of the Kaufmann empire, is barred from taking his uncle’s persona, and he will do anything he can to stop his main business rival, John Roditis (the only other viable candidate), from gaining the advantage of his uncle’s advice.

The main danger in the Scheffing process is that an implanted persona will “go dybbuk” — oust the host and take over as the controlling personality. One of the novel’s main characters, Charles Noyes, who works for Roditis, is in constant battle with a secondary persona that’s a little too strong for him to control; elsewhere in the novel we meet a rich man with far more money than sense, whose desire to impress everyone with the number of personas he’s had implanted has blinded him to the fact that he’s only partially in control of his own body. But in the story of Risa, daughter of Mark Kaufmann, who wheedles her father into allowing her to get her first persona implant, we see some of the advantages of the Scheffing process — having a slightly older secondary persona in her head gives her a new perspective on the world, enriches her life, and rids her of some of her immaturities.

As a novel, it’s a bit like a Jacobean drama, as we get to follow the stories of a bunch of scheming, wilful, powerful individuals who are likely to stop at nothing to achieve their ends. This is, despite the lip-service paid to Buddhistic ideas of reincarnation, an irreligious, amoral world “where reincarnation is a practical fact” (at least for those few who can afford it), and where the “sum of a human soul—hopes and strivings, rebuffs, triumphs, pains, pleasures—is nothing more than a series of magnetic impulses”. (Though perhaps it’s some lingering sense that the “sum of a human soul” is a little bit more than so many “magnetic impulses” that has led to the rule that only one instance of any single persona can be active in the world at any time. Though the novel itself proves that this isn’t an actual, practical limitation.) Some of Robert Silverberg’s novels of this era have an interest in the spiritual or moral awakening of their protagonists (Downward to the Earth, for instance), but here (except, perhaps, for the weak Charles Noyes), there’s none of that. To the Kaufmanns and Roditises of this world, the grafting of Buddhistic ideas onto the scientific wonders of the Scheffing process is so much populist nonsense:

“We’ve adapted all that Oriental foolishness to our own purposes. And our own purposes don’t include nirvana at all. To be swallowed up in the cosmic all? To be born no more? That’s not our object at all. To live again, that’s what we want. Again and again and again.”

It’s interesting how one idea (the grafting of one human mind or personality onto another’s) can be taken in so many directions. To Live Again is an SF version but there’s also of course horror (Ramsey Campbell’s The Influence, one of my favourite ghostly horror novels), and even comedy (All of Me, in which Steve Martin accidentally finds the soul of a millionairess thrust into his skull, with romantic-comedic results), to choose just a couple of examples. It may seem to be one of those science fictional concepts that will never be realised, but just think, how many fictional characters do you have, right now, living in the hidden corners of your brain? And are any of them likely to go dybbuk?


Conspiracy ’87

This year, for the first time ever, the World Horror Convention comes to the UK. In two weeks’ time, in fact. Also for the first time ever, I am going to the World Horror Convention. One of these events, obviously, is more momentous than the other. Anyway, I thought I’d prepare by writing my next few blog posts on Me & Horror — why I at first didn’t read it, why I started reading it, and why I still sometimes do read it. But before that, a blog post on SF. On one particular SF convention in fact.

Like this year’s WHC2010 (not to be confused with the World Hovercraft Championships 2010, which jostles for top billing on a Google search), Conspiracy ’87 was held in Brighton. Unless Games Day ’86 counts as a convention (I’m not sure on that point), Conspiracy ’87 was the first con I went to. It is also, up to now, the only con I’ve been to, meaning there’s been a gap of 23 years between going to my first con and going to my second. This isn’t at all a measure of how I felt about Conspiracy ’87, because I enjoyed it very much. It’s more a measure of the fact that I’ve never really got round to going to another one till now. (The only reason I went to Conspiracy was because Garen wanted to go, so I went along — for which I’m extremely grateful.)

So, here’s me outside the main conference centre in Brighton, wearing my Fantasy Archives t-shirt, with a just-visible Hannes Bok illustration (for Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model), which I must have bought at the con dealer’s room:

That dealer’s room was massive, to my eyes anyway, and like nothing I’d seen before in terms of sheer range of SF & fantasy books. I recall seeing the cover of some comic I’d never heard of, called Watchmen, on a dealer’s table, and hearing that this comic was beginning to generate something of a buzz at the time. I bought (and got signed) Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance, and also bought Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove’s Trillion Year Spree. I must have bought more than that, but those are the only two I remember. Both important books for me, as they led to me reading a lot of other books mentioned between their covers. I’ve re-read both several times.

My main memory of the con itself is of masses of people milling about, and huge halls filled with people listening to SF authors. I don’t remember anyone really being in costume, though I do remember a fully-functioning radio-controlled K9 someone had brought along. I don’t have many photographs, as I’m not great at taking photos. Here’s one from a talk panel on the launch of the Tales from the Forbidden Planet anthology. The chap with the mic is Ramsey Campbell; not sure about the lady next to him, but after her there’s Iain Banks (or I suppose that should be Iain M Banks), then Tanith Lee, then I think it’s Roz Kaveney (the editor of TFTFP), and Harry Harrison on the end:

I also remember Terry Pratchett, at a panel on “SF clichés”, where someone stood up and complained about SF stories where people have normal Earth names, till it was pointed out that there’s no reason why Earth people shouldn’t still be called Mark, Paul and David and so on in a couple of thousand years’ time, as we’ve had those names for at least that length of time ourselves. Then there was an interview with William Gibson, where someone with, I think, a French accent, asked me, pointing at the stage, “Excuse me, zis is William Jibson?”

But the main panel I remember, and the main reason I’ll always be grateful for Garen getting me to go to Conspiracy ’87 was one called “So You Wanna Be A Writer” (or something similar). The only author I remember being on the panel was Robert Silverberg, and the only advice I remember him giving was “There’s two sorts of wannabe writers. Those who say, ‘I wannabe a writer’, and those who sit down and actually do it.” That made me realise I had to sit down and actually do it, and it remains the best bit of advice I’ve ever heard with regards to writing.

My only regret about Conspiracy ’87 was not going to the Hawkwind concert, where they did a reprise of their Chronicle of the Black Sword show. Ah well. I’ve seen them a couple of times, since. I also recall my first experience of that post-con gap you get in the days afterwards, where you feel as though ordinary life is lacking something important in contrast to those few intense days of being surrounded by like-minded souls. I plugged that gap, of course, by buying books by the authors I’d seen, or (in the case of Alfred Bester, who was either too ill to come to the con or had just died, but was a Guest of Honour) almost seen. Many of them remain favourites to this day: Mythago Wood, The Demolished Man, Tiger! Tiger! (aka The Stars My Destination).

Mmm, must go to another SF con sometime.