The first real Hugo winner and a certified grade-A science fiction classic. This was one of those Hugo winners that I had long planned on reading but never gotten around to.
In the early 24th century, psychic cops have wiped out most crime in the solar system. However, a mega-wealthy businessman named Ben Reich decides that he can get away with murder. He makes his attempt in the first third of the novel, and most of the rest of the novel relates the efforts of telepathic detective Lincoln Powell to catch and convict Reich of his crime so that the businessman can be “demolished” as punishment.
I enjoyed this book, but it was a bit odd. On the plus side, Bester does a good job creating a “noir” feel. Some people cite this as a precursor to cyberpunk, and there’s no denying that there’s a gritty, realistic feel to Bester’s future society. Also, both Powell and Reich are complex and interesting characters (probably the ingredient most often missing in sci-fi). Bester also has some interesting ideas about what a society with a limited number of telepaths would be like (there’s a nice bit where Reich’s psychic lawyer has to work to prevent a telepathic interrogation).
On the other hand, there’s a lot going on here…maybe too much. We have telepaths of different orders fighting over the evolution of a psychic society, space travel across the solar system, evil megacorporations of the future, computers acting as juries (with some very high standards), people’s minds getting regressed to birth as psychotherapy, myriad weird weapons, secret fathers and siblings, split personalities, people able to bend all of reality with their minds, and finally the strange punishment of demolition, all as the background for multiple mysteries. Usually I like a lot of ideas in a fast-moving book , but they don’t entirely seem to cohere in this one. The book seems to be tackling a different idea and theme in every chapter. There are also some awkward character moments along with the good. Reich can come off as a cackling megalomaniac at times. Powell, meanwhile, gets a very odd, and I’d say very uncomfortably incestuous, love story with a witness that concludes in an improbable happy ending.
That all said, I’d rather read a book that tries to do too much than one that doesn’t do enough. I’d recommend The Demolished Man, though I wouldn’t necessarily put it at the top of your to read list. I don’t regret the 15 years that I sat on it.