Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Demolished Man part 1: Man Without a Face

Alfred Bester was a supernova in the field of science fiction. He wrote a spate of short stories in the 1950s and two novels, and then withdrew from science fiction to return to the more lucrative field of writing for travel magazines. But the stories he wrote in that brief blaze of creativity were packed full of invention and ideas. Some critics consider him a precursor to the "New Wave" science fiction of the '60s, and the Cyberpunk movement of the '80s. The character of Bester, the Psi-cop in Babylon 5 was named after him. His experimentation with the very text can be seen in his two great novels, The Stars My Destination and the one we're going to be discussing for the next few weeks: The Demolished Man.

Ben Reich is one of the richest men in the Solar System. His company, Monarch Utilities & Resources, has holdings on three planets and six satellites. He's handsome and charismatic; "I wouldn't change looks with the devil. I wouldn't change places with God," he tells himself, and it's not a boast. "I'm not afraid!... I'm never afraid!"

And yet nearly every night he wakes up screaming.

Reich is haunted by nightmares in which he is pursued by a Man With No Face. The dreams are gnawing at him; obsessing him. He has an esper psychiatrist on call 24/7, but his doctor can't help him. "There's a limit to my ability, Mr. Reich." The doctor is a 2nd Class Esper, capable of reading pre-conscious thought, but not of digging down into the subconscious. He believes that Reich knows the identity of the Faceless Man from his dreams, but refuses to admit it to himself.
"E for Esper," he muttered. "Esper for Extra Sensory Perception... For Telepaths, Mind Readers, Brain Peepers. You'd think a mind-reading doctor could stop the screaming. You'd think an Esper M.D. would earn his money and peep inside your head and stop the screaming. Those damned mindreaders are supposed to be the gretest advance since Homo sapiens evolved. E for Evolution. Bastards! E for Exploitation!"
But his doctor's proddings do suggest the answer. Reich has an enemy; a nemisis, rather; a business rival named Craye D'Courtney who owns a major Martian transportation conglomerate. He hates D'Courtney, and realizes that he wants to kill him; no, he needs to kill him.

Thinking things over, he decides to give D'Courtney one last chance. He sends his rival a coded message, suggesting a merger between their two companies. But deep down, he's certain he'll have to kill his enemy. All through the day he keeps coming up against reminders of their personal war: Reich sees his stock dip a point and D'Courtney's rise; his Chief of Personnel tells him that D'Courtney is hiring away all the top quality espers and that he needs to hire a Class 1 to manage his staff.

Reich has a casual conversation with West, his company's "Recreation Director", actually in charge of corporate espionage. He knows he'll need the help of an esper if he wants to go through with murder, and West is a Class 2. But West doesn't want to know whatever Reich is planning. All Espers are members of the Espers' Guild and bound by a strict ethical code. The price of breaking those rules is ostracism by the rest of the Esper community; and nothing Reich can offer is worth that price.

Reich goes to his office and digs some papers out of his vault; confidential and highly valuable information. Among them is a dossier written by his ancestor, Geoffrey Reich, who originally founded the company: an outline of four methods for committing the Perfect Murder. Well, that's over-stating things. The plans are over a century old and hopelessly outdated. After all, with the proliferation of espers in the police departments and in most professions, there hasn't been a successful murder in over seventy years. Still, Ben finds them inspirational reading:
"Caution: The essence of murder never changes. In every era it remains the conflict of the killer against society with the victim as the prize. And the ABC of conflict with society remains constant. Be audacious, be brave, be confident and you will not fail. Against these assets society can have no defense."
As he turns over ideas in his mind, D'Courtney's response arrives: a one-word coded reply: "WWHG", Offer Refused. "All right, D'Courtney. If you won't let it be merger, then I'll make it murder."

Reich has information on a number of corrupt, eminently bribable persons; and one of these is a Class 1 esper named Augustus Tate. Tate belongs to a faction within the Espers Guild that opposes the Guild's policy of increasing the number of espers through controlled breeding, in order to preserve the power and income of top-tier peepers. Reich confronts Tate directly and lays out his offer: help him kill D'Courtney, and Reich will put his fortune into breaking the Guild so that Tate and his friends can be on top.

It's a hell of a risk. Ten years ago, Reich persuaded a 2nd Level named Jerry Church to participate in a scam which led to Church being booted out of the Guild. Here the stakes are even higher; if caught, both men face Demolition. (We are not immediately told what that is; but it can't be good). But Tate is a corrupt and greedy man. Reich assures him that he will only be needed to gain intelligence and to run interference with other espers. Being a Class 1, Tate has exceptionally strong mind-blocks which only another Class 1 can penetrate.

Reich knows that D'Courntney is on his way to Earth. The first step will be for Tate to learn where D'Courtney will be.

Next we meet Lincoln Powell, a Class 1 esper who has been mentioned before. He is a detective with the police Psychotic Division. The name of his department tells you how crime is regarded in this society. He is also highly-regarded in the Esper's Guild and would be an obvious candidate for the next Guild president if he were not unmarried; the Espers Guild requires all its members to marry before the age of forty in order to increase the Next Generation of Espers. He is handsome, easy-going, and with perhaps a too highly-developed sense of humor. He is having several Espers over to his house for a party.

The first guest is Mary Noyes, a close friend who is helping organize the party. They flirt a bit -- she's deeply in love with him -- but although he will tell her "I love you", he won't think it. He likes her as a friend, but cannot give her more.
He took her shoulders firmly, held her close and looked deep into her eyes. "You're a 2nd. Read me as deeply as you can. What's in my mind? What's in my heart? What's the answer?" 
He removed all blocks. The thundering plunging depths of his mind cascaded over her in a warm, frightening torrent ... terrifying, yet magnetic and desirable; but ... "Snow. Mint. Tulips. Taffeta," she said wearily. "Go meet your guests, Mr. Powell. I'll make your canapes. It's all I'm good for."
Here we have one of those virtuoso passages which must have driven the typesetters crazy. Bester has the espers speaking to each other telepathically, but instead of simply rendering ordinary dialogue in italics, he plays games with the presentation to give a sense that more information is being carried than just the naked words. A couple of the espers have names that are typographic puns, like @kins. Words are folded into sentences to show associated ideas. In a couple places we have sentences cascading, intersecting and overlapping with each other, so that in places the same word is used in criss-crossing lines of conversation.

Augustus Tate is there, discreetly trying to pick up information about D'Courtney. Powell senses he's up to something, but cannot tell what. Jerry Church is also present, hanging around outside the building, trying to eavesdrop on what fragments of telepathic conversation. Unlike Tate, he's not looking for anything; he just desperately misses the contact of other minds. Powell comes out later and offers him a drink. He offers to try rescinding Jerry's ostracism; but Church is in no mood to accept pity; especially from the cop who brought him down in the first place.

NEXT:  Reich goes to see a gal about an earworm; buys a book of party games, and puts his plan into effect. Tension, apprehension and dissension will begin.

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