And for the matter at hand, so do I.
It isn’t much of a stretch to compare science fiction fandom’s Hugo Award for Best Novel to Hollywood’s Oscar for Best Picture. Winning the Hugo, in any category, is definitely that sort of big deal. The notoriety an award of such magnitude brings, Oscar or Hugo, can give the work so recognized longevity far beyond the norm for its genre.
This may explain part of the durability of the first novel to ever win the Hugo. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester was that first novel, and being such has almost certainly helped to keep it available through all the decades that have passed since its initial publication. But there’s more to it than that, in this case. The Demolished Man is a classic of the science fiction genre and, in my opinion at least, likely would have achieved that status without winning the award.
I first read The Demolished Man in the mid ‘70s, at a time when I’d just been drawn into science fiction fandom (we just call it fandom) and was focusing my writing time more on fiction than freelance journalism. As I said in a previous entry, I wanted to better understand the genre, and the Hugo winners presented a good theme by which to organize the effort. I started at the beginning with Hugo number one, and over the years that followed read a string of award winners. Years later I find myself walking that same path once more, reading now with older eyes and a more experienced – if not more mature – mind. Once again I’ve started the process with Hugo number one. I don’t recall exactly what I thought about it the first time; it’s been far too many years to say more than I enjoyed the book. This most recent reading, being still fresh in my mind, allows for more specific comments.
The Demolished Man is essentially a futuristic police procedural, set in a world rebuilt from a titanic, possibly nuclear war. (Bester is not specific.) Its main sci-fi idea is that of telepathy. The telepaths in this tale can be found in many walks of life, and are commonplace, if not mainstream. They’ve rendered the world a changed place in many ways, and among other things have made crimes such as murder all but impossible. How do you plan such a crime when there are people in law enforcement who can read your mind? It’s been decades since such a crime has taken place. But there is in this future world a wealthy business tycoon, as mad as he is ruthless, who has figured out a way to pull off the crime of murder. And the murder is, in fact, committed. Up to that point the book is merely a well-written crime thriller, the tale of a psychopath on the loose, set amid the trappings of a time yet to come. After the murder, as the investigation by the telepath for the local police unfolds, things start to change. The chief investigator is as aware of who the murderer is as the reader, but must have more than a glimpse into the mind of the killer to make the charges stick. The trick he must pull off is to provide solid proof in addition to what he’s winkled from the murder’s mind. He needs to prove the usual things, such as means and motive. As he works to do so his personal life intrudes, even as a strange battle of wits unfolds between the telepath and the equally intelligent madman. The book moves steadily away from merely a futuristic crime drama to a different sort of story altogether. Before the end, it takes a different twist that warps its genre definition in yet another direction.
The pacing and character development in this novel are of a quality that this book could still, for all its years, be held up as an example of How It’s Done. The author gives you just enough detail that, with any imagination at all, you can picture for yourself the world he has created. The characters are developed as much by their dialog and actions as by their inner thoughts as revealed by the narrator. Mr. Bester does not over-rely on any one of these to get the job done, and so character development is well-balanced. The pace starts out at a good clip, but at the end the story goes by in a flash. For all of that, the reader is never left behind as the wildest plot twist of all is revealed.
There are a few elements, especially with regard to telepathy, that are introduced a bit too late in the story to avoid seeming somewhat convenient. These items are, however, lent plausibility by what you learn of telepaths in the opening chapters, and so the matter of late introduction did not intrude while I was reading. By that point the story was moving too quickly, and I was too caught up in the tale, to be reading with a truly critical eye. These are the sorts of things that occur to you after the book is done, and you’re writing a review.
It’s abundantly obvious why this book seized the imaginations of sci-fi fans in the ‘50s. This was a fresh, new, and powerfully executed story. The Demolished Man is now considered a classic, and still draws an audience. Unlike its current reviewer, it has aged well. It’s done so, I believe, not so much because of the badge of honor it bears, but because this novel is not firmly attached to the time in which it was written. If you’ve read a fair amount of ‘50s sci-fi, there are elements of this book that you will recognize as products of the time. To the mind of the modern reader the roles of women – and there are few in this book – are a dead giveaway. Beyond what were perhaps inescapable signs of the times, however, Mr. Bester did not make the mistake of using the mannerisms of the times in which he wrote to build his characters and his world, as if the future would simply be a reflection of his day with a few bells and whistles added. The culture he creates for The Demolished Man is largely the product of its own imaginary time, with slang expressions and attitudes that derive nicely from a culture in which telepathy is not only real, but an everyday experience for many people. The characters in the book are recognizably human in their attitudes and motives, but they act out these human things within the context of another time. As a result, you find yourself reading a tale well told, but not a tale of the ‘50s. When someone uses the word “timeless” to describe a work of art, this is what they mean. The Demolished Man has influenced the work of others over the years, and what was a truly surprising ending fifty or more years ago might not be quite such a shock for some readers today. And yet, even here, the cleverness with which Mr. Bester twists his plot is enjoyable, all the same.
I’ve been sparing in details as I discussed The Demolished Man because I don’t want this to be the first of a series of spoiler reviews. My hope is that you’ll take the time and trouble to read this classic work of science fiction for yourself, if you haven’t already. The Demolished Man has surely earned its place among the great books of the genre, just as it deserved its award.
When I first decided to focus my attention on writing science fiction, I wanted a better sense for the depth and variety included in the genre. I’d grown aware, through involvement in science fiction fandom, that there was more going on than I’d seen up to that point. In part to address this need for a closer look, I gathered up Hugo Award winning novels and read them in chronological order. A then-recent reading of The Hugo Winners I and II, a short fiction anthology edited by Isaac Asimov, no doubt influenced my decision to approach the matter in such a way. This would have been in the mid 1970s, and I carried the project forward until sometime just after 1980, when I caught up with the list of award winners as it existed at that time. For some reason I don’t recall keeping up with future recipients, and when the amount of sci-fi I read dwindled in the early to mid 90s (and dropped to next to nothing as the New Millennium dawned) I stopped paying attention to Hugo winners altogether. I’d backed off from writing fiction of any kind, and the motivation to keep up faded away.
Now I’m back at both writing and reading sci-fi, motivated once more by a desire to be involved in the genre that defines most of the fiction I produce. I’m acutely aware of how much I’ve missed while I was away, and also keenly aware that actually catching up will be impossible. At least, it will be if I don’t put some sort of limit or guide in place. The idea of using the Hugo winners that I missed for just that purpose was not long in coming to me, and Wikipedia provided a handy list of winners. No need to do any research, just buy books and start reading. As I scanned backward through the list, looking for the last Hugo winner I read in that other writing incarnation, I realized that I couldn’t clearly draw a line at my previous stopping point. I remember reading Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. I still have the copy I read. (I don’t let go of books easily.) Pohl’s Gateway and McIntyre’s Dreamsnake sound familiar, but the books aren’t on the shelf and – say, wasn’t I reading the magazines back then in which those tales were first serialized? (I don’t hang on to old magazines.) I can’t recall reading Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise – I know, what the hell was wrong with me? – and Vinge’s Snowqueen rings no bells at all. And yet I’ve read Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, and each of the novels to win the award after that until Cyteen by the same author, the 1989 winner. I didn’t read these books as part of the project; I just happened to pick up on works that later won the award.
Complicating matters is my dim recollection of the books I read back in the ‘70s. I know I read Bester’s The Demolished Man, but if you’d recently asked me what the story was about, I’d have provided a sketchy answer. They’d Rather Be Right by Clifton and Riley? I still own the old Starblaze illustrated edition I picked up for that earlier Hugo reading project, and I surely read it. What’s it about? Couldn’t tell you.
So between the lack of a clear end point from the last time around and hazy (or no!) memories of reading those earlier works, I’ve decided to start all over again. I spent the holiday season rereading (and being blown away by) The Demolished Man. The book is worth a discussion of its own, and so it will be discussed in an upcoming entry. More Hugo “reviews” will appear at odd intervals for the foreseeable future.
This is going to take some time. After all, 61 novels have won the award – so far. And I’ll be reading other books, and writing and star-gazing and gardening and – well, bear with me. And watch this space.
To help keep up-to-date with the world of independent publishing, I make it a habit to “lurk” on a large forum devoted to ebooks, ereaders, and their fans. A subset of this forum is devoted to authors, and it has indeed been a gold mine of information. It is also, typical of the online realm, a font of opinions and a dumping ground for venting and rants. (Some of these are also informative, in their way, though perhaps not quite the way the ranters and venters might believe.) Browsing through all of this, I am struck time and again by how much of it amounts to complaints by writers that they don’t enjoy what they are doing. Define an aspect of being a writer, indie or otherwise, and do a search. You will find a discussion on those boards about what a loathsome pain in the ass it is. Editing, proofreading, and even writing itself (which absolutely baffles me) – each seems to have someone out there with their knickers twisted.
Some of the complaints are a bit disingenuous, much like listening to someone’s gripes about his or her spouse or children, even though that person wouldn’t be parted from that spouse or those children if life depended on it. But some of what I read is quite sincere, with a touch of surprise mixed in the generally aggrieved tones. The only explanation that makes sense for these complaints is that these people entered into the process largely ignorant of what it takes to “make” a book. Romanticized notions of what it means to be an Author rarely survive contact with the reality of it, and don’t usually die gracefully. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of those who wring their hands over this or that unpleasantness, discovered in the writing process, give it up and quit writing after that first book, which likely didn’t sell in any case.
But many don’t give it up. For some, a strange sort of balancing act comes into play. Something about writing, or about seeing a book published (and if the luck is with you, selling), provides enough motivation to keep them going – or, at least, posting on that forum. They find joy in the process of writing, then roll their eyes and moan when it comes time to clean up the manuscript. Writing is something apart from the other aspects of the process of producing a book. It’s the fun part, like watching the flowers bloom in the garden. If only you could have a garden without all that dratted digging and weeding. But you can’t, of course, any more than you can succeed as an indie author without seeing to the editing and proofreading of your work. Even if you hire professionals, you still need to do these things, if only to reduce your expenses.
Commonplace as these gripes happen to be, they puzzle me. I see editing and proofing as inseparable parts of the same process, the one I think of as writing. Generating the text of the story is just the beginning, and since I’m worrying over such things as word usage and watching for dumb spelling mistakes while I work, I don’t have a sense of moving from one thing or phase to another when the emphasis shifts from spinning the tale to making it readable. After all, I’m just as aware of the story and the characters while “editing” as I am while “writing.” I pretty much have to be, to make it all work. That involvement with the story, all the way through, keeps the other aspects of the job from seeming like separate chores. I don’t finish the story and then edit it. I’m finished with the story when the thing goes live on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and others of that ilk.
All aspects of the process are for me as necessary as they are gratifying. I may speak of each as something apart from the rest when reporting progress (or when I hit a snag), but that’s a matter of convenience, for the sake of efficient communication. Whether I’m forging ahead, going back over the material to make sure it hangs together, or cleaning the manuscript up for beta readers (Yes, guys, I do proof the thing before you see it. Hard to believe, right?), I am writing, that thing I most love to do in life. For me there’s nothing to hate about any of it.