“Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.”

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

(w/ a new intro by Harry Harrison)

A Byron Priess Book (First Vintage/Random House), 1996 edition.

Originally published (serially) Galaxy magazine in 1951; first book form, 1953.

243, Paperback.

Sean highly recommended The Stars My Destination, I read it and wanted more Bester. This was his next recommendation, an earlier novel, and companion to the aforementioned.

Literature, Philosophy, Science Fiction

In 2301 A.D., guns are only museum pieces and benign telepaths sweep the minds of the populace to detect crimes before they happen. In 2301 A.D., homicide is virtually impossible—but one man is about to change that.

In this classic science fiction novel, the first to win the prestigious Hugo Award, a psychopathic business magnate devises the ultimate scheme to eliminate the competition and destroy the order of his society. Hurtling from the orgies of a future aristocracy to a deep space game preserve, and across densely realized subcultures of psychic doctors, grafters, and police, the Demolished Man is a masterpiece of high-tech suspense, set in a world in which everything has changed except for the ancient instinct for murder. ~back cover.

Something has to be done about Craye D’Courtney, the head of the D’Courtney Cartel, Ben Reich’s enemy and only real competitor. D’Courtney is outstripping him in every department, on every level. Reich sees his world disintegrating around him. So he turns to what he sees to be his only option after D’Courtney rejects the last ditch effort. But how does one commit murder when surrounded by “peepers” who even at their lowest levels would read murder on his mind? What does one do when they come up against one of the most masterful Espers (peepers) of them all, the level 1 Police Prefect Lincoln Powell?

“Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.”

Society isn’t the police state that you find in Minority Report* where a few invasively read you before you commit murder. The ethics outlined by the Esper guild and the laws work differently. While the threats an Esper might impose is considered, their function is quite benign. It is their ubiquitous presence, however, that causes citizens to reconsider the pre-meditated sort of murder—the kind Reich is bent on committing.

“Tenser, said the Tensor. Tenser, said the Tensor.”

 Alfred Bester delivers not only a wonderfully inventive future landscape, but a suspenseful crime thriller to match.  We follow Reich as he formulates a plan and daringly follows through. Admittedly, at points, I found myself cheering him on, holding my breath to see how he could possibly pull it off. The third-person-limited artfully moves to Powell and we get a closer look into how the Esper part of society functions. It is hard not to like this character almost immediately. He is incredibly intelligent and endearingly humorous. I was channeling Sherlock Holmes as played by Robert Downey Jr. here—though taller. There is a snag and Powell is called in. A chase ensues. Reich must evade and escape. Powell must follow all his leads and build a case. The basic plot would be interesting on its own, but mix in the human psyche, futuristic capabilities, and Besters ability to negotiate the twists and turns of his own mad imagination and voile The Demolished Man.

Eight, sir; seven, sir;

Six, sir; five, sir;

Four, sir; three, sir;

Two, sir; one!

Tenser, said the Tensor.

Tenser, said the Tensor.

Tension, apprehension,

And dissension have begun. (43)

This was created to catch in the mind, like those infecting advertising jingles. It works. And it is also perfectly applied throughout the rest of the novel. “Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.” Bester is clever with the building of suspense. And even as he disorients the Reader, an explanation will come—eventually. I found myself confused at times, not understanding even the explanations provided. The necessarily cryptic statements were occasionally dizzying. Most was returned to an upright state by the end, but I’ve a few lingering questions.

I told Sean that I need to brush up on my psychoanalysis, because I was referencing a lot of my lessons on Freud and following. Sean nodded, yes, that and Nietzsche—the “uber mensch” and “will to power.” If any such references mentioned excite you, this is a fantastic read. Bester frequently enters the inner human landscape, delving as deep as the Id. He constructs, and demolishes, and re-constructs. His ideas and depictions are intriguing. And the implications are compelling.

“Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.”

Bester imagines a future where humans are much more liberated sexually—as if this goes in hand with a technological revolution. Duffy is both intellectually gifted and sexually aggressive, forthright in her basic desires. Actually, all the female characters in the novel are much more transparent and proactive in their needs and desires than the men. Both Reich and Powell come off as downright prudish most of the time. I love that Powell even knows how to blush (can anything be more appealing in a man?). If Bester is creating an externalized landscape not unlike the internal one, what is he saying about males and females who populate it? Because Bester is re-creating the internal landscape in the external setting. There are sequences where the reader is not clear on whether they are inside or out or if both are one in the same. He is as convincing as Philip K. Dick is when he does this.

The paralleling of the Id, Ego, and Super Ego on the societal level helps communicate the real threat Reich imposes, the one that occupies the later pages of the novel. I had a hard time figuring out said threat until I started thinking about the parallels and the functions of each level.

“Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.”

I didn’t care for how the women were carried off, and I’m a bit disturbed by Powell and Barbara. I’m sure Freud or other has something to commend it. The only flaw in the novel is how tidy a bow was at the end. But we all like a little romance, eh? Um… I appreciated how the women were empowered, but not how they were insatiable to the point of pathetic weakness with regards to the sensuality.

I did care for how Bester writes his male characters. I enjoyed Reich and Powell, even though at times Reich was troublesome. Bester doesn’t cast him aside completely because he isn’t easy, because he does bad things.  “If a man’s got the talent and guts to buck society, he’s obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you’ve got left are sheep.”  Cultural critics will feast on some of the social commentary found in The Demolished Man. The novel is a pleasure on so many levels.

Bester creates a thrilling ride in The Demolished Man. It isn’t the most easily negotiated, but it is so gorgeously imagined. Alfred Bester was a truly gifted writer. I look forward to the next recommendation, am thinking of hunting down some of his short stories.

Alfred Bester pre-dates cyberpunk, but fans of said genre would be remiss to have not read him. Philip K. Dick fans will note Bester’s influences. Psychological fiction readers should enjoy this foray as well. I am not one who reads a lot of Science Fiction, am fairly reluctant with the genre, really, but Alfred Bester excites me. He’s more than literary enough for genre snobs, and his writing invigorates the imagination as well as the pulse. I would recommend The Stars My Destination first, but you can’t go wrong with either.


* Philip K. Dick’s short story, or 2002 film from Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell

Note: I do think familiarity with Freud and following’s school of Id, Ego, & Superego, and Nietzche would help the reader negotiate the novel more easily and perhaps enjoy it more. Just the same, I would hope unfamiliarity would not deter a body from finding some enjoyment. The author does his best to provide explanation amidst the clever wit and futuristic climes.

past ramblings about The Stars My Destination

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

4 thoughts on ““Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.”

  1. great post, love. i am constantly amazed that you are able to take our ramblings and musings and make pointed and insightful posts out of them.

  2. The Stars My Destination is one of my favorite novels of all time, regardless of genre. And I would have to say that The Demolished Man is hot on its heels. I read this with a couple of my friends three years back and although they both enjoyed it on different levels, they didn’t “love” it as I did. They were more disturbed by Reich’s character than I was. One of the many things I think Bester is a master at is creating, in these two novels, a character that you cannot help but like and cheer for despite them having very unlikeable, and at times deplorable, qualities.

    I liked Reich right from the start and contrary to the way one feels they “should” feel about this story, I was cheering him on the whole way, hoping for his success, championing his form of rebellion.

    The Demolished Man is one of those books that I had a very remarkable experience with. It was the right book at the right time, and I fell in love with the beat up library copy of the book I read, something I wax eloquent on in my review:


    I wish now that I had offered to buy it from the library, because not long after that it disappeared from the circulation list. It either was borrowed by another and never returned or, more likely, it was sold in a library sale.

    Still, I took a few of those pictures in the post, modified them a bit in photoshop to punch them up, and printed them as 8X10’s and have them hanging in my bedroom. Oddly enough I stopped in front of them this morning and spent some time looking at them, thinking that I need to read The Demolished Man again.

    Maybe this is a sign!

    1. it is a sign!

      it is an interesting experience finding yourself rooting for Reich to succeed and noticing that the only reason you don’t want him to finish D’Courtney is because something is off, not the fact that Reich is murdering him, but because it feels like we’re missing a bit of information.

      thanks for providing a link to your review. i meant to look to see if you’d read it, and it escaped my mind.

      I like how you brought up the doubling of Reich and Powell in your review, because there are things about Powell that aren’t so shiny…

      I also liked this: “That conundrum stays with the reader throughout the novel. One is uncertain exactly who to root for and that uncertainty adds to the suspicion, paranoia, and mounting suspense of the story. In a relatively brief amount of pages Bester realizes a fully formed and complete story that reads as well as anything written since its release.”
      Bester does create incredible suspicion and paranoia in just this way…

      ah, and that was a beautiful cover you found.


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