Today I examined two award-winning novels. One was written in the 50s and one in 1995, I know go figure. Both are set in the “extreme” future and share an intriguing technique everyone, reader and writer alike, can learn from…
Re-published in 1996, the book jacket said this on the flap: “This kind of novel had never happened before. Other writers have since used and built upon its structure: Blish, Zelazny and Delany come to mind. The New Wave mined its assets, and the cyberpunks only echo dim whispers of The Demolished Man’s rolling thunder.” So writes Harry Harrison in his introduction to this new edition of Alfred Bester’s seminal novel, The Demolished Man, winner of the first-ever Hugo Award in 1953. Its combination of taunt suspense, imaginative speculation and inventive language is as explosive today as it was 43 years ago.
Lincoln Powell is a telepathic detective with a problem. The crime is murder. Powell knows the name of the killer…but not the motive. And worse, he can’t prove his case to the D.A., a crusty but fair-minded computer. A hundred years before, such problems were all in a day’s work. But in Powell’s world of 2301 AD, telepathic police stop murder before it occurs. There hasn’t been a murder in 71 years…until now.
Ben Reich is one of the richest, most powerful men anywhere, with a range of influence that includes three planets and as many moons. A man of immense personal charm and extraordinary talents, he is also a psychotic murderer…without obvious motive. His talents, power and madness make him a unique and deadly threat to humanity unless he can be stopped.
Telepathic evidence is inadmissible in a court of law, so Powell must go to the only source of the proof that will bring Reich to justice: the tortured mind of the subject himself. The deeper Powell probes, the more he finds to like and admire in Reich…and the more to fear.”
Metropolitan (1995) by Walter Jon Williams. Winner of the 1995 Nebula Award for Best Novel.
From the Library Journal about an out of print edition of this title: “As an executive employed by the Plasm Authority, an organization responsible for monitoring the distribution of the geo-plasmic energy that fuels the workings of the world’s elite technomancers, Aiah dreams of escape from her confining and stagnant existence. When she discovers a limitless source of unregistered plasm, she embarks on a daring scheme that raises her to the threshold of political power. Set upon a planet dominated by one globe-spanning metropolitan sprawl, Williams’s latest novel envisions a world in which magic and technology form a unbreachable coalition. Although the author of Days of Atonement continues to explore new territory, his focus rests solidly on the creation of believable, sympathetic characters supported by a well-turned plot. Libraries should consider this a priority purchase.”
—Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
I’m not a fan of hard science fiction. I could care less how a hypothetical machine might work or testing frontiers of scientific knowledge. So I was pleasantly surprised how Bester incorporated each and every one of his ideas so they rose straight from the story. Too often there are pages of explanation, explanation that doesn’t pertain to the plot and this book is free from that dullness. Even if I didn’t have a writer’s reason to love this book I’d still consider it a great read.
Energy responsive to human will sounds pretty cool, and if you can somehow base it in science then I’m sure hard science fan boys everywhere would rejoice. Many of the plot elements, like how the protagonist got away with hiding the unregistered plasm are well developed…the character herself is ballsy in a sort of way you wish you could be if you were going to break the law.
—Pro and Cons: A Review
A friend invited me to peruse his shelf of absolutely favorite hard science fiction that he’s collected over his lifetime. Upon his expounding on different titles I impulsively chose Bester’s The Demolished Man to take down. After reading the flap I again, impulsively asked to borrow the book. Taken aback by my bold whimsy my friend hesitated but agreed.
Hard Science Fiction…what is it? Well much like the difference between hard and soft science, it’s all about using real science, the natural and physical sciences as compared to the social sciences, to explain details, factors and elements of the plot. So hard science fiction should have an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.
Bester is really successful for me in this aspect. He explores science ideas like mind reading, needing a mind shield, regressing a personality to protect them from catatonia, a man being so important he changes the course of the entire universe and last but not least a city full of Espers directing all their energy toward changing one thought. As well as physical inventions like the Mose computer, an ‘out of phase’ safe and Reich’s recording crystals. The best thing about all these ideas are they are very fluidly introduced into the story in such a way that they arise as naturally as you would talk about a car or microwave nowadays. This is key for me when it comes to hard science fiction. I really dislike reading about how a sail on some spaceship works when it really has little to nothing to do with the plot. Now not all of these ideas exactly jive with current thought in our contemporary world but I believe he establishes them in such a way that they work within context of the story.
First and foremost on the successful list of these ideas is the Esper, telepaths or peepers, so-called because they can see into other people’s minds. These Espers are all part of a single guild where they are policed to follow ethical guidelines for their peeping and forced to marry among themselves to further the guild’s dream of populating the world. They have handy innate abilities like being able to talk among themselves and stun weaker classed Espers, all passed on genetically. Many critics object that this kind of mass thinking isn’t possible; that a group such as this would break naturally into smaller sub groups with conflicting ideas and designs. This is exactly the kind of thinking Bester wanted to escape by placing his story quite a ways into the future.
It’s supposed to be close enough to where our world is going to be relatable but futuristic enough that some ideas are believable. Due to the threat of isolation, the love of mind to mind communication and enough time having passed for this to become the status quo we are to believe that now people naturally group due to this kind of ability. He supports this idea very well by establishing classifications that the guild follows. 1st class Espers can read all surface thoughts and sub-conscious urges deeper down. 2nd class Espers can read deeper than a 3rd but much less so compared to a 1st – so more subliminal patterns, slight associations and basic connections. Both 1st and 2nd class Espers can block the reading of a non-Esper if they are present. 3rd class Espers are the most common and they can only read conscious thoughts right in the moment. Bester further classifies these Espers by dispersing them into the work force based on their class. So 3rd class are secretaries and administrators, 2nd class are psychologists, lawyers, managers and the like, while 1st class hold positions of power in the police, medicine and government. Because they all start out classified it makes it more believable that they are then regulated by a guild. Much like movie people are today.
Perhaps my favorite of Bester’s ideas is the mind shield. Reich needed some way to keep the espers out of his surface thoughts so he visits a marketing specialist and wants her to play the most annoying jungle she’s ever written. “Five, Sir, Four, Sir, Three, Sir, Two, Sir, One. Tenser said the tensor. Tenser said the tensor. Tension, apprehension and dissension have begun.” Just as she warned him it got stuck in his head and becomes the shield he needs to commit his crime. Later it becomes his tell. You know he is stressed whenever the lines of the jingle run through his head. I really love that an aspect of the plot became so integral to the character and how he was feeling.
Set in a future New York City, it’s not a terribly modern world so much as the perfect setting from which Bester could explore his ideas. A quasi-modern future, distant enough to free him from the boundaries with which reality constrains a writer’s creativity but still relatable to most readers. By only utilizing the aspects of the world he needed to get across his story Bester created a world that exists no matter how far into the future we get because it’s necessary for the book’s story.
At heart this book is a police procedural, a murder mystery where we know who did it but we don’t know how he’ll be caught. The murderer’s mindset is revealed. His plans are set in motion after the inciting event. Then off we go on a wild tug of war which will determine who wins…murderer or detective. Doesn’t sound too thrilling put this way because we’ve seen this technique used so often in modern storytelling. I have to say this is perhaps the best written use of this technique I’ve ever read. It’s simple taunt and spellbinding. Yeah hard science is a big factor of this book. If you can let go of those ideas that your intellect can so easily shunt aside then you too can get caught up in the chase for The Demolished Man.
The same friend suggested I borrow and read his copy of Metropolitan, which he himself had never sufficiently gotten into. He felt it would expound on a type of science that I would be interested in for my own work.
There are three scientific factors that are important to the world: the metropolis, the shield and plasm.
The title of the book “Metropolitan” comes from the metropolises that over the millennia have grown over every available land surface and then even over much of the open water as well. This single city has been divided into areas called metropolises each governed as a nation, ranging from democracies to dictatorships to monarchies. A metropolitan is the powerful individual who rules an entire metropolis. There have been many wars where governments have been annexed or have fallen to rise with a new ruler. The populations have risen with the spread of the city and are a big factor to the way the world functions.
The shield is a barrier that encloses the entire planet and emits light and heat like the sun. All matter that rises above a certain altitude incinerated and all electromagnetic energy directed into it is absorbed. With no day or night or even seasons, time is divided into shifts which are broken into eight-hour cycles. The shield and who placed it around the planet play into the mythology of the world and the different factions. How food is grown and the inclusion of weather phenomena is explained enough to get on with the story without a ton of plaguing questions.
Plasm is an energy that responds to human will. It is created by the arrangement of buildings and structural elements into patterns that the humans have developed to maximize the gathering of the plasm. This energy has become so essential to life that it is tapped and sold to citizens like electricity or water. Essentially plasm is a kind of magic that replaces the traditional idea of science as it can be used to overcome the typical restrictions of the natural laws. In current times governments can rise or fall due to plasm and that is what surrounds the motivations of our story.
Each of these ideas had merit but none of them fully worked for me. The gigantic planet sized city had the most potential and most everything connected to it worked. So the idea that buildings built on top of other buildings on top of other buildings creating their own energy makes a kind of sense to me. The idea of a shield around the planet doesn’t. At least not as explained. It seems to come out of nowhere. I did appreciate that he tried to connect any explanations to plot elements and happenings but many times I felt I got a bunch of extra details I didn’t need at the time. This is when contrivance comes out to play and it’s appearance does not make for happy readers.
So from a hard science aspect I didn’t get my friend’s thought that I would get anything from it. Also since it failed from the hard science idea aspect I kind of felt like this whole idea would have been better spent in some kind of fantasy world. During my research for the post I found on Wikipedia it said Metropolitan was arcanepunk: “Arcanepunk refers to a fantasy world where both magic and science exist.” Huh? This didn’t feel like a fantasy world to me in the least, though the idea would fit into that kind of world.
In fact, the world didn’t work to me either because it felt rather reminiscent of the 50s sort of hard science literature. At first, I thought maybe it was written in the 70s from the book cover. It wasn’t until I was doing research for this post that I realized the book was published in 1995. This fact made the hard science aspect fail even more so as it wasn’t written that long ago. I think it’s appalling that I couldn’t tell that this was a fantasy world or that it used hard science facts from 1995! These are major aspects of the world that just didn’t make sense.
So this really confounded my whole idea to compare and contrast these two books. In the end I still feel my comparison is valid as they had a similar feel so I’m going to go for it. I was really open to this book because I wanted to like it. I wanted to be able to suggest to my friend that he read it and enjoy the purchase he had made. In the end though I could not do so.
In the positive, I started out really liking the character, Aiah. She sounded like a supremely modern person, struggling with financial difficulties, a dislike of her really practical job and a marriage on the rocks due to separation and the #1 reason for divorce, money. She is a bit of an outcast in her own society because she turned her back on their ways to take up with the currently reining society and their people and ways. With not enough money to fully go the route she’d like she settled on marrying a guy she thought she loved and a job she thought she could tolerate to get out of the life she grew up in. In fact, the more I write about her the more depressed I get about her life.
So basically I’m saying the character had a ton of modern problems. Knowing what I know now it makes sense she was written in more recent times, but it makes even less sense that this book felt like it was set in a modern take of the 50s or even the 70s. The book’s plot continues in this same vein in a rather senseless sprawl around the idea of plasm. The set up really worked for me. A huge multi-story burning woman…then we plunge into Aiah’s life and the mystery of the flaming woman. We get an answer about the how and why a huge woman is even possible let alone her walking around killing people. So there really wasn’t a mystery involved though it seemed to start out that way. We get introduced to perhaps the best character in the entire book right at the beginning as well…a Plasm Authority man who is under utilized and wasted.
In the end I read just to see if this character would play out in any satisfying way… you guessed it, he didn’t! Metropolitan does what it sets out to do…Aiah is freed from her ho-hum life but not really to pursue any ends that interest me or that I even find compelling. If you want to read about a woman journeying to find moral ambiguity and stupid choices then I highly suggest this read.
I typed up the marketing blurb on the jacket of The Demolished Man so you could read what drew me to the book. In order to really understand the book though you need more and better details, so here is a brief summation: In a world policed by telepaths, Ben Reich plans to commit a crime that hasn’t been heard of in 70 years: murder. That’s the only option left for Reich, whose company is losing a 10-year death struggle with rival D’Courtney Enterprises. Terrorized in his dreams by The Man With No Face and driven to the edge after D’Courtney refuses a merger offer, Reich murders his rival and bribes a high-ranking telepath to help him cover his tracks. But while police prefect Lincoln Powell knows Reich is guilty, his telepath’s knowledge is a far cry from admissible evidence.
The book starts off at the perfect place, with the protagonist Ben Reich at his most vulnerable. We instantly form a bond with the man during these pages that takes us through his murdering several victims. As you read, you get caught up in Reich’s emotions and stress. You can feel that he has been driven to this, perhaps due to D’Courtney’s ruthlessness or perhaps something else, something that conjures a man with no face. The expert thing Bester does is create this cloud of doubt that Reich is planning to commit murder for the reasons he claims. A tension rises inside you that wants you to wait, give Reich the benefit of the doubt until his true motivations reveal themselves. It’s due to this masterful setup that you can suspend disbelief long enough to get to the end of the book. It’s this tension that makes the book such a compelling read.
Lincoln Powell is no less expertly setup as Ben Reich. In order to flip roles with the protagonist the antagonist has to be of equal weight. Not to strong or there is no tension about just who will win, but not so weak that the winner is clear. I love, love, love that Powell was given his own personal desires above and beyond capturing Reich. Not only did it make him a true protagonist when Reich became such a dastardly villain but it made you want to root for Powell as much as Reich. Powell is an esper, a very powerful and responsible one at that. He must marry and father a child with esper abilities and as such must marry an esper. He has a woman colleague waiting in the wings dying to fulfill that role for him. He is unmoved by her. Because of Reich and the inciting murder Powell meets a woman he ought never to have and falls in love. She is the critical witness to Reich’s deed. None of this felt contrived, a huge mark in it’s favor for me who finds a lot of plot to be so.
The secret to plot not feeling contrived is to set motivations and desires so firmly inside the character that no matter how you look at it the character wouldn’t be him- or herself without having committed those actions. Hence how you reveal and introduce those motivations and desires must rise from plot, and specifically setup, in such a way that you don’t question those motivations or desires. Each must be right for them one of them to work. (You’ve probably watch a television show or read a book where you really loved the character but they did ridiculous things or you really loved the action but never watched the show again because you couldn’t relate to the character.)
The pay off at the end though really cinched the plot. You can do all the setup you want and still let down your audience if you don’t allow the characters to come to their natural end. For Reich he had to pay for his crimes. For Powell he had to risk never getting the girl. I normally would go into great detail how this worked. This is such an awesome payoff that I can’t this time. Suffice it to say that Reich ends the book by returning from the darkness of murder back into his protagonist role. Powell ends up back in place as the antagonist by making Reich face the consequences of his actions and he wins the girl fulling his time as the protagonist.
If the book had been written from Powell’s point of view like your typical detective novel then the power of the ending would have been lost. The tension would have ebbed around the reader’s ankles rather than at our necks. Because the author’s use of flipping the protagonist/antagonist is so expertly realized, The Demolished Man is as good today as in 1953 and shouldn’t be relegated to the antiquated pile.
Metropolitan is not so well done yet it so expertly illustrates why The Demolished Man worked by it’s very lack of the elements needed to carry off the protagonist/antagonist flip technique. So what are those elements?
#1 – Setup motivations and desires of the protagonist and the antagonist.
The protagonist is Aiah and she was setup really well. I liked her from the get go and really wanted her to realize some of her dreams: to get out of the fate her background locked her to, to have a more satisfying job than just relaying plasm (which a computer could do) and to find love that doesn’t pale after a few years. So you have great desires and you can intuit some of her motivations (her background as a Barkazil and her not wanting to be scammed which her people feel is the height of idiocy.)
The real problem is that there is no antagonist. Yeah of the entire book. You could say the Metropolis is the villain, the people of Jaspeeri. You could say she is her own worst enemy. You could say Constantine is the antagonist. So pick already you say. Well I can’t really. None of them of been setup as an antagonist or villain as none of them are really in conflict with the protagonist. Aiah works with each of these potential villains rather than be seen as weak. Well then this isn’t the story to use this technique! Well there is one character who was loosely setup to take the role of protagonist as well as antagonist. He is a Plasm Authority man (I didn’t get his name before returning the book!) who takes out the Burning lady in the beginning. (Later Aiah plays a scam on him to mislead his investigation into the location of the plasm well she herself tapped.) He was perfectly positioned in a place of moral integrity (like Powell) and power through his work with plasm. He could have illegitimately been on Aiah’s trail and in the end given her the choice of jail or work with him for real.
#2 – Plot rises from the characters’ motivations and desires.
The middle part of this book was extremely boring. It’s basically waiting for the revolt to come or to be revealed as a thief, using plasm (which is kind of like using drugs in effect) and having sex (a supposed relationship) with Constantine. There was little to no tension and the best parts included the Plasm Authority man which he was brought back into the story from his brief glimpse in the beginning. By introducing the Plasm Authority man as another aspect of the story we could have been caught up with whether he would catch Aiah or not and ruin her lover’s plans (Constantine). He wouldn’t of course but he would stop Aiah from running off and not facing some kind of consequence.
To make plot less boring we needed more conflict. Something that threatens the protagonist’s motivations and desires. One of my biggest peeve about this story is that Aiah gets what she perceives she wants. Rarely do people want what they need and so to give a character exactly what they desire with no repercussions or fight or conflict seems the height of idiocy to me. And that’s the real problem, nothing rally threatens Aiah. Never do you believe that she won’t get what she wants. Nothing is a big enough threat.
#3 – The end must have a payoff that satisfies for both protagonist and antagonist.
Continuing with the Plasm Authority man idea, the end could have really paid off then instead of flopped closed. Instead of Aiah running off to be with Constantine she would have been forced to stay where she was and fix her life. Giving up the man she loves seems a fitting consequence to stealing the plasm. It would have given her a new rewarding job in the Plasm Authority and she could realize she has a new love for catching criminals, freeing herself from her Barkazil background. In the next book then, instead of just haring off to be with Constantine she could have been transferred there with her boss to deal with the situation (the powers that be not knowing of her link to Constantine). It would have made for a really compelling read!
As for the Plasm Authority man and his payoff, he needed to be better developed as a character to fully realize his role but at the very least he could have been reinvigorated toward his life and his job. He’s lived several hundred years and this gives a great foundation for desires that weren’t explored like they could have been. I’d have liked for his background to be connected to Constantine’s ally Taikoen, a deadly, magical creature who kills and murders in exchange for permission to possess human bodies. We could have really explored this side of plasm more and then resolved the connection in the sequel. In the end the Plasm Authority man would have payed off by stopped Aiah from self destructing (antagonist role) and won the best compliment to his own moral integrity (protagonist role).
Metropolitan failed as a story for me, a little more tension and a lot more stakes were needed. These changes would have really made this book pop. All the potential and a lot of the setup/ideas needed were already in place to institute the protagonist/antagonist flip technique. It could have made this book timeless, rather than even more antiquated than already presented to us as.
I’ve never wanted to kill a person before in my life. Perhaps I have been very angry and wanted to kick someone but never take someone’s life. To me there is always way too much emphasis put on killing and for rather pathetic reasons. Be a little creative, geeze! Most of the time there wasn’t even a need to murder…the “murderer” could have left town and had less risk then murdering the person provided. “Accidental” murder may be more believable than premeditated because the murderer is “out of their head” emotional but even then I find it quite a stretch to risk murder.
It’s funny because I love police procedurals, especially ones with great detectives. I really enjoy Masterpiece Mystery on PBS, some of my most favorite television. I also totally buy into psychological reasons to murder even if I don’t condone them.
Therefore, something quite annoying to me in recent years is writers penchant to “accidentally” kill a murderer because to bring them to justice in a court of law would be uncomfortable. Just because someone has a good reason to kill someone doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be in that courtroom having to face their victim’s families and loved ones. It’s such a cop out to me.
So it really annoys me when a writer allows a morally ambiguous character to run away, like Aiah in Metropolitan. It not only stole from the reader the chance to see the outcome of that moral ambiguity but there seemed little point to her having morals in the first place. Why not just have the character be a villain with a detective or some such on their tail?
I guess that’s why I really enjoyed the payoff in The Demolished Man…the villain side of Reich got his due while the protagonist side retained his life. Perhaps having his personality demolished is akin to a type of death, perhaps it’s also akin to a type of reincarnation, which I don’t believe in, but either way it speaks to another way. As a matter of fact, I don’t particularly believe a personality can be demolished either…
Hard Science Fiction readers might struggle with the antiquated science facts in the book. As a character study The Demolished Man excelled. It’s this kind of out of the box thinking that our books, movies and tv shows need today.
Hard Science Fiction fans might love the innovative plasm, a magic science that is the cornerstone of the book, but I don’t see the point if you so quickly squander my built up passion for the character. The end matters and not so much in Metropolitan, who ends up being the villain of this post.
Are you a fan of hard sci-fi? Or of the general sci-fi genre? Do you enjoy characters that are murky – neither white nor black?