Thursday, February 12, 2009

With Darkness as an Ally (Part 4)

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension
And dissension have begun.

I doubt many people will have heard of Ben Reich, antihero of Alfred Bester's Hugo Award-winning novel (the first to receive the distinction, in fact) The Demolished Man. And I have to admit that it could be argued that Reich is not an antihero but more a villain, with Linc Powell in the role of the true hero of the novel. It's a matter of perspective. In my mind, Reich is the Demolished Man, and so is the protagonist, and so an antihero.

Reich is quite simply a murderer. Ruthless and charming, brilliant and terrified of only one thing in the whole universe. Every night he is haunted by a nightmare - the Man With No Face. If this were a movie, dear departed Don LaFontaine sets the stage in the classic opening: "In a world where..."

In this marvelous work of science-fiction, this is a world where telepaths exist, and there has not been a successful premeditated murder in nearly 80 years. The telepaths - Espers - have made it impossible, but Ben Reich's back is against the wall, and someone is going to die. For ten years he has been locked in a financial battle with Craye D'Courtney, and Reich and his company are coming out the losers.

Reich is brash and bold, enlisting the help of the prominent Esper Augustus Tate; offering him power within the ruling Guild of Espers which controls the interests of the telepathic populace. With Tate's help he can fool the "peepers" that could foil his murderous plan to kill D'Courtney in the hopes of saving his financial empire. With Tate's help he can circumvent the investigation of the crime, led by Lincoln Powell. But Tate can do nothing against D'Courtney's daughter, who witnessed the murder and escaped before Reich could kill her as well.

The novel becomes a race to track down the young woman, for Powell knows full well that Reich is guilty, but the evidence against him must be rock-solid in order to convict. This is one of my favorite novels, because there are so many marvelous moments that it is a pure delight to read. For instance, when Reich rockets off to Spaceland to kill his chief of codes, who could also hold the key to Reich's Demolition, they are hidden in five hundred square miles of wilderness. He fashions a bow and arrow and we are treated to a sublime look into Reich's mind. "You can't kill a man in a hunting accident unless you go hunting."

You could almost like Ben Reich, you could almost understand his desperation, if it weren't possible to flip pages backwards to check certain facts that he overlooks, facts which become vital to the plot of the story. Suffice to say that his motives are not what he suspects, and the Man With No Face is the real key to Reich's Demolition.

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