If you have me on Good Reads, you may have already seen this review. If not… well, here’s my impression of the winner of the first Hugo for Best Novel.
Are you a Babylon 5 fan? Picture the Psi Corps. Now make Bester (as played by Walter Koenig) a fine, upstanding head of the Psi Cops. Change his name to Lincoln Powell. Human, telepath, all around good guy. Capable of screwing up, but very good at his job. This book is where the inspiration for the Psi Corps came from.
Not a Babylon 5 fan? Telepaths are real and come in three levels of power, able to read the conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious parts of the mind. They serve in a variety of jobs, but are all members of the Esper Guild. Lincoln Powell is an upstanding guy, member of the highest strength group of the espers, and a police prefect.
A business-motivated murder completes all the plot summary you need to dive into this story. Except maybe it’s not just business-motivated. A little research tells me that this is actually an inverted detective story in a science fiction setting. The speculative element is key to the story, so it’s not just a detective story. Inverted as in, we know how the crime was done because we watched it happen, but the fun is in seeing how the hero figures things out.
The first section of story is devoted to the villain, Ben Reich, attempting to get away with the first pre-meditated murder in more than 70 years, the planning and execution of the crime. After that, we mostly follow the exploits of the hero, Lincoln Powell, although more of this than I would like is less about Powell’s actions than descriptions of the actions taken under his orders with him commenting once in a while. As a result, the narrative moves quickly, and we only get the scenes Bester actually wanted to give us. A few more of them might have been nice.
Unfortunately, the resolution of the story is kind of a rabbit out of a hat, flavoured by the MacGuffin of the “Mass Cathexis Measure”, a dangerous telepathic thingy that lets the hero construct an artificial reality around the villain and then slowly close it off until the villain is the only thing left.
Bester does a few neat little things in the narrative, the biggest one being how telepaths talk. Mind to mind is easy enough to keep track of, even when there’s more than one thread going on at a time, but for group conversations, Bester sets up mental conversational patterns and has the characters all going at it at once and the reader left to figure out the real content of things. It’s fun, but it’s also good it doesn’t happen too often. This is actually the only thing I remembered well from reading the book the first time back in the early 1990s.
He also has another point of fun with language, replacing parts of some names with standard symbols the reader can pronounce as if they’re letters, like @kins and Wyg&. Not sure you could get away with this now, but it’s fun. My favourite is ¼maine. Makes me smile every time.
Technology isn’t too big a part of the story, at least beyond standard easy tropes that, even by the time this published, are just part of the background and not really creative, but don’t look too closely at the supercomputer and you won’t have to think about easily dated technological concepts.
Overall rating: 4 stars. While I wish the end of the story shouldn’t require so much explanation (not quite enough clues were placed for the reader for the ending to completely make sense without explanation, but then Bester was an SF writer, maybe not so much a Mystery writer), the story is quick and the characterization is great – even the minor characters have voices of their own and stand out, adding to the background and realism of the world this is taking place in. If gender roles and balances aren’t quite what I like in my fiction these days, I do have to recognize the time period it was written in (the 1950s) and extrapolated from.
One interesting note, that I’ll let the reader find in the text, is that Bester seems to come down against capital punishment, though how it’s different than Demolition, the death of personality, used as sentence against capital crimes, is up for discussion.by