Friday, May 25, 2012

The Lucky Thirteen

For those of you who have not been keeping detailed track, I've posted reviews for 74 major science fiction award winners, which means I have 13 left to read and review. This small number (including eleven Hugos, one Nebula, and one Hugo-and-Nebula) would make you think that the end is reasonably in sight.

Avid readers of this blog may have noticed, however, that the average elapsed time between book reviews has been growing. I assure you, dear reader, that this is through no waning of my interest in the subject matter.

It is certainly due in part to an increase in the chaos and busyness of both my life and my day job (destroying worlds, of course). But it is also due to the intrinsic nature of the remaining books themselves. I have managed to whittle myself down to thirteen books that are, for one reason or another, particularly difficult to get through. To wit:
  • The book is enormous (Blackout/All Clear, Jonathon Strange
  • I am 8th in line for a hold on two library copies (Among Others)
  • The book has been checked out or missing from my library for a long, long time (Hyperion, Spin, The Snow Queen
  • The lone copy at my library is in-library use only (Double Star, Cyteen, Uplift War)
  • The book is part of a series that I dread reading another installment of (The Vor Game
  • The book is by an author that I dread reading again (Rainbow’s End, The Graveyard Book
  • I dread reading the book for other reasons (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I trust the reader will understand if my productivity slows still further as a result of these circumstances. But have faith: the thirteen will be completed. And then... who knows what. Perhaps it will be on to the nominees!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ – – – –


A Demolished Man is tolerable until about two-thirds of the way through, and then it falls apart in a frustrating mass of pretentiousness and 1950s-era pop psychology.

The book takes place in the late 21st century, after humans have colonized the moon and several nearby planets. Evolution and training have brought about a new small but powerful minority: people with ESP, or “Espers,” who can read the thoughts of others.

There is no crime anymore, since Espers can tell when one is about to be committed and prevent it from happening (Similar to the premise of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which came out five years later).

There are three classes of Esper, from the rudimentary and common class 3 up to the powerful and rare class 1. All Espers of all classes belong to a self-regulating Guild which prevents them from “peeping” people without their permission and otherwise using their abilities for evil.

In this world lives Ben Reich, president of the behemoth Monarch Utilities & Resources corporation. Reich is engaged in a heated battle for world capital domination with Craye D’Courtney of the D’Courtney Cartel. He is also haunted by nightmares of a mysterious Man With No Face which cause him to wake up in the middle of the night, screaming.

At the beginning of the book, Reich sends a coded message to D’Courtney proposing a merger. D’Courtney accepts, but Reich mis-decodes his answer as a refusal, and determines that the only thing he can do to preserve Monarch is to kill D’Courtney (which seems like a bit of a leap, but I guess Reich’s nightmare-addled sleep may be impeding his logic).

Reich constructs an elaborate plan involving bribery, deceit, and an inane tune he can use to distract his brain while it’s being “peeped,” to get in a position to murder D’Courtney. Once the murder is done, Reich then engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with Police Prefect (and class 1 Esper) Lincoln Powell, who knows that Reich did it but can’t prove it without solid physical evidence.

I give Bester credit for being a seminal SF writer. His ideas inspired legions of other authors; I can see his influence both on his contemporaries (like Philip K. Dick) and also on later writers (like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson).

The Espers and the way they influence societal structure are big examples of this. A smaller, more specific one is his use of language. Esper mental-talk is creative and flowing; it takes an almost physical form that other Espers can see. At parties, Espers weave patterns with their conversation to make it both witty and beautiful, which Bester shows by using different fonts for different people and spacing the words artfully on the page. He also uses shorthand and symbols like the ones we use in texting today; there are characters named Wyg& and @kins, for example, and people write notes using “thot” for “thought” and “2” for “too.”

This book suffers, however, from sloppiness, pretentiousness, and dicey amateur psychology. Not to mention a touch of misogyny for good measure.

In the sloppiness and pretentiousness department, Bester has a tendency to bring in new ideas throughout the book, flesh them out only cursorily, and, when they are not needed any more, make them disappear as conveniently and abruptly as they were brought in. And these distracting new plot points, locations, or characters often appear to be included solely as opportunities for Bester to show off his cleverness.

For example, in one late chapter Reich hides from the police in the “Reservation,” a jungle preserve we have never heard of before and which is explained to us in a clunky back-filling speech by a minor sergeant’s deputy given a speaking role only for that purpose. Prefect Powell brings in a group of class 1 Espers—pillars of society such as diplomats, politicians, and judges—to serve as a human radar screen to flush Reich out of the Reservation. This creates a convoluted situation in which these high-powered men are out in the jungle running into bears and wildcats and stuff and still referring to each other politely as “Senator” and “Your Honor.” I think their mental conversation is supposed to be hilariously clever but it comes off as contrived and unfunny. And the chapter itself sticks out like a sore thumb because nowhere else do we hear about the Reservation, and nowhere else do we see the class 1 Espers as a light-hearted, cooperative group.

The questionable psychological theories in the book are even more bothersome and crop up everywhere, from the ridiculous free-associative dream interpretation done by Reich’s analyst to the unhelpful and hyper-academic explanation of what is happening to a character who has a mental breakdown:
“It’s quite simple. 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. Under strain they defuse.”
This also includes the demolition referred to by the book’s title. Since Reich seems able to elude Powell at every turn, Powell eventually has to call for a “Mass Cathexis,” a process in which every Esper simultaneously “opens his psyche and contributes his latent energy to a pool” to be controlled by one single Esper. If the focal Esper is not destroyed in the process, he serves as a conduit for all the mental energy and can use it to control almost anything he chooses.

Powell directs all the energy in his Cathexis towards the “Demolition” of Reich. Demolition is the ultimate punishment and the last resort of law enforcement: your entire psyche is destroyed, all your reality is taken away, your memories are gone, but your consciousness remains. You then have the potential to be reborn as a different person.

Powell’s justification for doing this to Reich is difficult to follow. Powell explains that he had to “make [Reich] believe that all the universe was a puzzle for him to solve, that he was the only reality and all the rest was make-believe. This would lead him to inevitably confront his subconscious.” And Reich in particular had to be forced to confront his subconscious because he was a “galactic focal point,” a “crucial link between the positive past and the probable future.” “These men appear every so often,” Powell says, “…links between the past and the future. If they are permitted to mature…if the link is permitted to weld…the world finds itself chained to a dreadful tomorrow.”

Sorry, I don’t understand that at all, and what I think I do understand, I don’t buy, or there wasn’t enough setup for it in the book to make me buy it. It just comes across to me as sloppy.

And, last but not least of my criticisms, is the lovely way women are treated in the novel. Of course the main male characters don’t like the mature women who are in love with them; of course they like the ingénues and basket cases instead. And among the primary female characters in the book are:
  • Maria Beaumont, society dame. Behind her back she is called the “Gilt Corpse” because she is gaudy but unattractive. She is flighty and superficial and likes to play silly party games. At one point when she is unhappy her voice is described as “screeching.”
  • Duffy Wyg&, Reich’s girlfriend. She is arguably the most “positively” described woman in the book: “ the epitome of the modern career girl—the virgin seductress.” (i.e. madonna/whore.) At one point she thinks she’s being too silly and tells Reich: “punch me around a little.” 
  • Barbara D’Courtney, Craye’s daughter. She is an innocent young woman who has a breakdown after witnessing the murder of her father and has to be re-educated as if she was being raised from infancy. This re-education is done, for some reason, by Powell, who, for a good long time, has to pretend to be her “daddy.” This leads, naturally, to him falling head over heels in love with her; he says he loves her “mischievousness” and “urchin look.” Ick, anyone? 
Bester winds up the book with a self-righteous coda about how, no matter how important the individual people in it may think they are, this entire story is “minute and trivial to the infinite Eye of God.” Why, then, sir, I ask, are we bothering to read the darn book?
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