The Psychologist in SF: Part Three

One: Bester Introduced / The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester loved to write about roles. Throughout his works, he managed to hone in on, caricature, extrapolate, and investigate the minds of criminal saviors, homicidal CEOs, psychic psychologists, sleep-walking (and sleep-killing) perfume designers – the list goes on. Part pastiche, part fever-dream, part jazz-riffing cartooning, it is the characters – and their place in society – that really make Bester the godfather of Cyberpunk. And let’s face it – he does it better than the younger William Gibson in many ways, as hard as that is for me to say. They may be less realistic on the surface, but they’re richer for all their pomp. In all of Bester’s characters, the vein of the psychic struggle runs deep. Bester was deeply aware of the psychological epic of human life, and, even in his earlier, Freud-laden material, his insights still carry these tales.

In talking about Bester, it’s a little more difficult to find “The Psychologist,” or at least to keep him chained to the discussion for long; however, in this case, Bester himself is the psychologist, in a far more literal sense than most others in this series.

SPOILERS FOLLOW. These books were written in the 1950s; I think the statute of limitations applies.

The Demolished Man, one of the two seminal Bester novels, is a Freudian parable, a post-modernist amorality-play that simply examines – with glee, with demented fervor, but never with passé moral judgment – the consequences of mixing passion and power, especially when the motive is revenge. Ben Reich, the CEO of Monarch, is absolutely possessed by his desire to murder Craye D’Courtney, a man who he subconsciously knows is his father. In a shining example of science fiction at its best (and most fun), we are introduced to a world filled with “Espers,” telepaths who constitute a crucial aspect of society; as Bester is wont to do, he makes this development the crux of culture, setting up a complex class system based around the level of one’s telepathic power. He then allows us to follow one wily psychopath with no end of resourcefulness and innovative thinking as he navigates this world, attempting to do something next to impossible. In a world full of psychics, murder almost never takes place. Reich has to snake around almost every barrier of his world in order to get what he wants.

This is a pattern or mode that is repeated in The Stars My Destination. The Oedipal facets of DM are widely acknowledged, as is the fact that SMD is essentially a “retelling” of The Count of Monte Cristo. But what is often overlooked is the “matching pair” of similarities: DM is as much a retelling of Oedipus Rex, and both novels share almost identical plotting – a structure of revenge epic that can be found in both Oedipus Rex and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Reich is the picture-perfect Freudian nut-job: he is plagued by dreams of The Man with No Face, motivated by a self-destructive homicidal impulse, the motivation for which he is completely unaware, and, ultimately, succumbs to “demolition,” a total erasure of his memories, including not only the initial traumatic experiences, but all those that followed. Per Freud, Reich’s entire life was thrown under the train by his early traumas, and even his own recognition of this loses out to his self-destructive impulse, which he confronts within his demolition experience.

As hard as all this is to buy (even some of the most basic Freudian notions seem pretty ass-backwards to me in the majority of cases), Bester pulls something truly wonderful from the whole tale. Even if this isn’t how people really work, hey: it’s science fiction, and that means the freedom – and responsibility – to explore all kinds of what-if scenarios. Try to read DM with “what if Freudian psychology actually applied?” as one of the many science-fictional positions of the novel, and you’ll be fine.

There is a therapist character in this novel. I’d like to go back and re-read the parts concerning him; maybe I’ll do that and throw in an addendum later. Until then: the therapist is an employee of Monarch, of Reich himself, and is, needless to say, an Esper. His presence in Reich’s life is more or less mandatory, either due to company or government policy, and Reich resents it immensely, though he is conflicted in this regard: he uses the services provided up to the point where he becomes threatened. He intentionally keeps a lower-level Esper in the role, one of many actions set up seemingly long in advance to protect his intentions from being discovered.

This relationship, tertiary to the plot though it may be, is revealing of a few things. First, it is an exaggerated version of the resentment-projection I mentioned in part one. Second, it implies something about the nature of power and the effect it has on the way one receives help from others. Though any of us could snap at our psychologists and walk out, we typically don’t. This ‘ability’ is less a literal one, and more a reflection of our attitudes toward the world and others. Reich’s power, in his mind, permits any and all impulses to come to fruition, including those he knows could destroy him.

This relationship, and indeed the role of the therapist here, brings to mind the psychologist in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, which I will cover later in the PKD segment of this series (a seriously daunting task). In both cases, actual treatment is second to the fulfillment of social roles and obligations. It’s a dire extrapolation, and one that, unfortunately, is probably not far from the truth for the very powerful today. The difference with Dick, of course, is that this is available to everyday people, laborers on Mars who develop social anxiety and schizophrenic behavior en masse.

Though we are never guided back to it, I wonder about the therapist’s responsibility in the story, and what Bester would have said about that. Perhaps it was, in some small part at least, his failure to be more assertive that allowed Reich to submit himself to a string of acts which culminated in his identity being decimated? After all, psychologists now aren’t mind-readers, and they still hold some degree of responsibility. Maybe the therapist’s reliance on his own resource of power prevented his acting to the fullest potential of his skills.

Next: More Bester as I cover The Stars My Destination


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