Monday, February 17, 2014

The Hugo and Nebula Novel Project: 1953

Hugo Winner: The Demolished Man

Nebula Winner: None Awarded

Welcome to the inaugural entry to the Hugo and Nebula Novel Project, where I’ll be reading every novel that has won the Best Novel award.  I thought it would be more interesting to do both awards and compare and contrast (though there are of course a few years where the same novel won both) than just don one or the other.  In the early going there will be only Hugo winners as the Nebulas came a bit later.

First, a bit of background on the awards.  The Hugo Award for Best Novel, awarded since 1953, is voted on by attendees of the annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) and is the fan award; attendees vote before the convention and the awards are then presented at Worldcon. Throughout this project I’ll also be talking about the other nominees, but in the early years those were not recorded so we can leave that aside.  The Nebula Award for Best Novel, awarded since 1966, is voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and so is more of a trade award.  (Interestingly, the nomination process for both awards doesn’t provide guidance as to what they consider science fiction so you get a nice range of types over the years).

Our novel for this entry is Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953), which was originally anthologized in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952 before being published as a stand-alone novel.  Bester was primarily a short story and comics writer, publishing only three science fiction novels (He also published a non-genre novel titled Who He? in 1953).  Interestingly, after Stars his science fiction work mostly dropped off until the mid-70s as he focused on magazine work, writing interviews and travel stories.

The Demolished Man takes place in 2301, where Ben Reich, industry magnate, has his back to the wall as he is being pressed by rival magnate Craye D'Courtney.  Reich has been having nightly nightmares of a Man With No Face and to both save his own sanity and to win this industry war determines that he must murder D’Courtney and remove his rival permanently.  This would be a simple thing for a man of his talents except that this world of 2301 has a guild of telepaths knowns as Espers (or “peepers”) who can anticipate murderous intent and intercept such intentions before the murder occurs (similar to the psychics in the excellent 2002 movie Minority Report), to the extent that there hasn’t been a murder on Earth in 70 years.

Reich’s main rival in trying to get away with the murder is an Esper and police detective named Lincoln Powell; full of himself, arrogant to a point and convinced he’s the nicest person on Earth.  Yeah, not my favorite lead character in a novel ever, Powell basically pulls the Bond route of pretending he knows what he’s doing as he stumbles from lead to lead, almost always two steps behind Reich.  Toss in a completely random character habit of lying when he doesn’t need to, leading to the nickname of Dishonest Abe, and we’re set for a lead composed of character traits and not a character.

Then, about three quarters of the way through the book, things get purely weird.  So far, we’ve had a straightforward mystery novel in a futuristic setting but then we get into my least favorite part of 1950’s-era science fiction: insane amounts of psychological mumbo jumbo, usually applied to some completely different field.  In this case, it’s split personalities, trying to deconstruct the killer inside his own mind to find out what happens plot-moving mumbo jumbo so we feel like we’ve reached a plot resolution when it’s really just an excuse to sneer at 20th Century incarceration.  Toss in some random 50’s sci-fi female characters that exist only in relation to the male characters and then that D’Courtney’s daughter Barbara spends most of the novel regressed to a childhood state due to shock (and yes, that plot reads as unintentionally pervy as you think) and this novel suffers more than a bit for being dated.

Would I recommend it?  Overall, probabaly; it’s still fairly well written despite the dated aspects and parts of it are fun.  I just wouldn’t run for the bookstore to pick up a copy.

Random Technobabble:  Tuesday afternoon, Reich left Monarch Tower early and dropped in at the Century Audio-bookstore on Sheridan Place.  It specialized mostly in piezo-electric crystal recordings...tiny jewels mounted in elegant settings.  The latest vogue was brooch-operas for M’lady. (“She Shall Have Music Wherever She Goes.”) Century also had shelves of obsolete printed books.

What Should Have Won in 1953:  No idea.  At this point the Hugo voting didn’t reveal the runner-ups.

My Hugo Novel Rankings So Far:

#1: The Demolished Man

Next Time: The 1955 winner, Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s They'd Rather Be Right.

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