The Demolished Man: The first Hugo Award winner

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Demolished Man by Alfred Bester science fiction book reviewsThe Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

If I had read The Demolished Man back in 1952 when it was first published, I would have given it 5 stars, no question. But in 2014, with 60 years of refinements in the genre, it suffers from some very dated dialogue and characterization, and some really condescending portrayals of women. I’m afraid the present value of the book is 4 stars.

Having said that, The Demolished Man remains an impressively-imagined story of a future society shared by telepaths and normals, and the attempt by wealthy megalomaniac industrialist Ben Reich to stage and get away with murder in a society where the police and many others can read thoughts and memories. It’s an exciting and pulpy adventure, and presages the cyberpunk genre by over 30 years (William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, and Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report in particular; they all contain remnants of Bester’s DNA). So it was well deserving of the inaugural Hugo Award, especially when you see the low quality of some of the other nominees and winners back in the early days, most of which have faded from popular memory without a murmur of protest (Has anyone read the next year’s winner They’d Rather Be Right, for example?).

It’s not fair to ridicule how badly aged the future visions of venerable SF authors from the Golden Age can become. Instead, we should consider how much they inspired future generations of genre practitioners, who updated and improved on the early ideas and imbued them with more telling details that resonated with each successive generation. Just like a piece of classical music, its value lies not only in the music itself but its legacy for the works that follow.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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6 comments

  1. One of my all time favorite novels. Most people say that The Stars My Destination is their favorite Bester novel (and I really enjoyed that too) but The Demolished Man has always been my favorite.

  2. Thanks, Stuart! I’m in the THE STARS MY DESTINATION camp, but I like the reminder of the vision of this story.

    I love the idea of the classics as sources of inspiration and the roots of today’s stories … but sometimes I just can’t resist making fun of the dated dialogue or imaginative predictions that went wide of the mark.I love English Victorian novels too, but I still make fun of the excessive use of coincidence to make the plots work.

    • I agree with Marion. I feel a great need to read all the classics, but I have such a hard time getting past the sexism and racism that were such a normal part of their culture. It makes me cringe (yet it’s also a great reminder of how far we’ve come). I’m glad you mentioned that here and then focused on the rest of what the story has to offer.

      Welcome to FanLit!

  3. I have never read any of the older sci-fi or fantasy, but it must so cool to go back and read some of the award winners from the 50’s and 60’s. Just to see what was consider best at that time, and how it now relates to what is being published today, and what I, personally, consider to be the best right now.

  4. I would definitely say that The Demolished Man had some extremely dated dialogue, and really blatant sexism throughout, but I tried to look past these parts to enjoy the underlying story, which was pretty exciting and original. It’s always a tough balancing act to judge a book written over half a century ago, and while some parts feel like Mad Men, the sci-fi elements are really great. I thought that THE STARS MY DESTINATION was brilliant and doesn’t feel particularly dated at all!

  5. Welcome to FanLit, Stuart! And I’m glad we’re in agreement about how good (though sometimes dated) Bester’s work can be.

    The Stars My Destination, though? Blew me away when I first read it.

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