Great Hugo Reread 1953: Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man

First Time/Reread: Reread. This was one of the books I read for James Gunn’s science fiction course I took at KU.
Acquired: Already owned, thanks to the aforementioned class.

Other Nominees:
The other nominees were not recorded until 1959, with the exception of the Retro Hugos.

Background:
Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man was the first novel to ever win the Hugo Award for best novel, originally called the Science Fiction Achievement Awards. It was serialized in Galaxy in three parts.

Synopsis:
The industrialist Ben Reich hires a powerful telepath to shield his mind from other telepaths, while he goes about trying to commit the first murder in the Solar System in over 70 years. The book turns into a cat and mouse game between Reich and the police telepath Lincoln Powell. Unusually for a police procedural, Powell knows almost from the get-go that Reich did it. Unfortunately, he still has to prove it. One of the driving struggles throughout the book is figuring out Reich’s motive, which not even he fully understands. The name of the book refers to the punishment for severe crimes in this civilization.

Verdict:
I don’t know what the other nominees were, so I couldn’t say if one of them deserved it more, but on its own merits, I definitely think Bester’s novel deserves it. It’s an engaging, twisty novel that stands on its own merits both as mystery and science fiction. There are some sticking points, like a very Freudian take on psychology, which is a big deal in a mystery novel filled with psychics. The gender roles make it obvious that the book was published in the 50s. The cat and mouse opposition between the protagonists, though, is extremely well done. Also, the novel postulates a benevolent Orwellian state that actually sounds pretty good to live in. The psychics monitoring everyone to prevent crime operate under insanely strict rules of conduct. So… yeah, I’d definitely recommend this one.

Trivia:
-It was one of the earlier science fiction mystery novels, published a year before Asimov published The Caves of Steel in response to John Campbell claiming the two genres couldn’t mix.
-The working title was “Demolition!”.

<1951: Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky
1954: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451>

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