The First Hugo Winner Probably Deserves the Ghetto

In "Blogging the Hugos," running biweekly, we'll explore the evolution of science fiction by looking at Hugo Award–winning novels in chronological order. Today: the very first Hugo winner, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, from 1953.

I started this project because a secret dream of mine has been to write a Hugo Award–winning book. This is not, at present, a particularly realistic dream, as I have yet to write even a non-Hugo Award–winning book. But I'm working on it, and as I stumble through that process, I thought I might glean something useful from those who've succeeded where I would like to.

So then, where it all began: The Demolished Man, which received its honors in 1953 at the 11th Worldcon, in Philadelphia.* Go ahead, get your bleach-blond Wesley Snipes and "Now all restaurants are Taco Bell" jokes out of the way in the comments now. I'll wait.

This is a mystery novel, and it centers around a murder, but it's not a murder mystery, because we know from nearly the start who the killer is — wealthy businessman Ben Reich — and follow him as he commits the crime. The mystery is Reich's underlying motivation, and I'll tell you right now that the reveal — to my modern-day eyes, and probably to yours — is a disappointment. The tension leading up to that disappointment comes from the fact that in this version of 22nd-century Earth, a good chunk of the population is telepathic, and as a result, homicide doesn't generally happen anymore. There's also some romance, kind of. (It's creepy.)

The First Hugo Winner Probably Deserves the Ghetto

I don't want to say much more; if you're curious, you should read the book. Instead, I should share this theory of mine with you right now, which ripened as I read The Demolished Man, because it will inevitably shade at least the next few postings in this series. I'll try to correct for it, but I'd appreciate your help, readers, if at any point you think I'm giving too much credence to my preconceived prejudices.

Here's the theory: Science fiction was ghettoized for a long time because at first, it deserved to be.

The long-standing complaint is that SF isn't taken seriously as "real" literature or art because it's about robots and spaceships and ESP and the like, which are written off as childish subjects. My sense is that this complaint extends back to SF literature's so-called golden days.**

But my admittedly limited experience with a lot of older SF books leaves me unconvinced that many of them should be taken seriously as literature. I don't mean this in a Sturgeon's law kind of way, where the vast majority of anything is bound to be mediocre or worse. I mean that much of the well-regarded older SF I've read is, by basic storytelling standards, cripplingly underdeveloped.

Take, for instance, The Demolished Man's good guy, a telepathic cop named Lincoln Powell. Yes, he speaks in Cary Grant–like diction — "A little mercy for your host, please. I'll jump in my tracks, if we keep on weaving this mish-mash" — but that's forgivable, because who in 1950s SF doesn't?

What's bizarre is that Bester gives Powell a foible — a weird one, especially for a cop: Occasionally, Lincoln is a compulsive liar. Why is that bizarre? Because despite popping up several times throughout the story, it has not a whit of bearing on any of the action. It's as if Bester's editor told him, "Round the guy out! Make him a little interesting!" But qualities with no bearing on the narrative aren't interesting — they're just setups for payoffs that never take place.

There are more issues, including yet another shoddy reveal, having to do with the book's title, which maybe seemed crafty back in the day, but which is telegraphed from so early on; the deus ex machina-type power Powell uses to save the day; and the fundamental premise that an honor code would keep a minority psychic society from trying to take over the world. This is stuff it would be hard to swallow even half a century ago — and no, we can't let the book off the hook because of the era: The Old Man and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer in 1953, might be boring, but it doesn't strain credulity this way.

The Demolished Man does do some interesting things. It might be the first instance where non-letter characters were used in names — Bester's Wyg& and @kins are early precursors to William Gibson's 3Jane and Neal Stephenson's Da5id. And his unsatisfyingly brief take on telepathic society could have been the foundation for something much more provocative. He also deserves credit for writing characters here who mostly don't come straight out of Central Casting.

But those positives don't outweigh the overall averageness of the first Hugo winner. And so I'm looking forward to watching its successors struggle up and into respectability.

*Hugos were awarded for 1946, 1951, and 1954, but they were retroactively awarded, so we will not be considering those winners.

**If it doesn't — if most of the writers back then thought they were producing largely throwaway mush — please, really, correct me.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other Sunday. In the next installment: They'd Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, from 1955.

Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found here.