Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review - They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

Short review: A seemingly scientology-influenced work of mediocrity that somehow won the 1955 Hugo for Best Novel.

A machine makes you
Immortal, super-powered
They'd rather be right

Full review: After awarding the Hugo Award to The Demolished Man (read review) in 1953, the award was temporarily retired. Apparently everyone thought that the Hugos awarded at the 1953 Worldcon would be a one-time event as opposed to an annual affair. In 1955 the award was brought back after its short hiatus and the Best Novel Hugo was inexplicably awarded to They'd Rather Be Right (later renamed The Forever Machine).

Why this turgid and pointless work of mediocrity won the Hugo remains a mystery, especially given that there were numerous far-superior alternatives available including Brain Wave by Poul Anderson, The Caves of Steel (read review) by Isaac Asimov, Earthman, Come Home by James Blish, Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, and The Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein. Hugo voters could have followed the lead of the International Fantasy Award and voted in favor of Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers (read review). Or they could have even selected The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. But no, they elected to choose a book so weak that it is the only Hugo winning novel to be allowed to go out of print for decades. (Note: In 1955 the selection process appears not to have been formalized fully, so there was no short list of competing nominees, this selection potential alternative winners is merely drawn from the array of other works of science fiction and fantasy published in 1955).

One odd side effect of They'd Rather Be Right's Hugo win is that every now and then, when some enterprising writer decides to plunge into science fiction and read all the Hugo winners, they plow through the excellent 1953 winner The Demolished Man, write glowing praise for it, and then are never heard from again on the subject of science fiction. I am guessing that it is because they move on to this example of lousy writing and lose their verve.

The story of They'd Rather Be Right is pretty straightforward, which is actually part of the problem with the book. A group of scientists create a thinking machine they call "Bossy", which causes public panic as everyone thinks that the machine will relegate humans to second class status. On that note, one has to wonder what sort of public relations failure one would have to engage in to name your thinking machine "Bossy" in the face of a panicky public. The novel opens with two of the scientists on the run, aided by a telepath named Joe Carter who hides them on skid row. They reassemble their machine and despite the fact that the machine was supposed to be designed to prevent airline crashes, they decide instead that the obvious thing to do is feed it a bunch of psychological data, hook it up to Mabel, their ex-prostitute landlady, and watch her become a young superpowered woman.

If you think this doesn't make much sense, you're right. But the book was written to order as a serial appearing in Astounding Science Fiction for editor John Campbell, who by the time this work was being penned had already become a proponent of L. Ron Hubbard's ludicrously pseudo-scientific Dianetics (going so far as to proclaim that Hubbard would win the Nobel Peace Prize for creating Scientology). How does this connect to They'd Rather Be Right one might ask. Well, when Bossy is connected to Mabel it "cures" her of old age by eliminating all of the false ideas she has, and replacing them with logical ones, leaving her more ethical, smarter, healthier, apparently immortal, and possessing of the power of telepathy. This process seems closely analogous with the Scientology practice of "auditing" a person to eliminate the "reactive mind" and "thetans", which proponents of Scientology claim will leave a person more ethical, more intelligent, immune to a host of illnesses, and eventually possessing of supernatural powers.

This is not the only Scientology influenced element that the books seems to display. Hubbard's hatred of psychiatry is fairly public knowledge now, and it should come as no surprise that the sole psychiatrist character who appears in the novel is a dogmatic, venal character whose theories are quickly and easily dismissed by the clear-thinking Mabel. Whether Clifton and Riley inserted these sort of Scientology-like element as the centerpiece of their book because they were influenced by Hubbard, or influenced by the same sorts of popular thinking that inspired Hubbard, or simply because they knew what Campbell would like and and what would make him more likely to buy their work, the fingerprints are there.

The Scientology influence isn't all that drags this book into sub-mediocrity. Once Bossy has been assembled and its magical healing powers revealed, the plot, such as there is of one, just sort of peters out. Joe and the two professors turn to a wealthy industrialist for help in getting out from under Federal indictment because they assume that because he published an editorial in favor of Bossy he'd be sympathetic to their cause. And instead of any kind of plot twist developing, he is wholeheartedly on their side, even when it becomes apparent that he won't get what he wants out of the relationship. It turns out that one has to give up all of your prejudices and beliefs in order to benefit from the use of the machine, prompting Joe to state that most people wouldn't be willing to do this but would "rather be right". It also turns out that anyone who successfully goes through the procedure becomes telepathic, another development with huge potential implications that is left unexplored. Joe's aberrant telepathy is also a mystery, and since he is already a telepath, it seems that no one thinks that he should go through the Bossy based process. Apparently, if you are already a telepath, the possibility of becoming immortal isn't that enticing.

Rather than examining what might happen if you had a society in which some people are effectively immortal and superpowered and others are not, the book ends just as the machines begin rolling off the assembly line. Instead of examining the effects of this sort of development, Clifton and Riley are pretty much content to have their cardboard characters lecture the reader about "opinion control" and give vague indications that the world is controlled by nebulous and yet pervasive public relations campaigns that, on a whim, can turn the populace on a dime. The one character who tries to undergo the process and fails simply resigns himself to the fact that he is destined to remain old and sick, which seems like an oddly listless reaction to what would probably be devastating news. This just highlights the fact that the "character" isn't really a character, but just a prop being used by the authors to make a point. Having made its argument in favor of Dianetics via computer interface, the book just ends.

They'd Rather Be Right is widely regarded as the worst novel to ever win a Hugo Award. I'm not inclined to disagree with this assessment. Given that, it is not a terrible book, but rather a very formulaic piece of mediocre fiction overlaid with a veneer of poorly disguised Scientology. The book isn't even bad enough to be derided as enjoyably awful, it is just bland, dull, and uninteresting. Overall the experience of reading the tasteless blandness of They'd Rather Be Right is akin to eating stale white bread, and is an experience best to be avoided.

1953 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

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  1. What a fantastic review! I mean, I'm sorry you found it such a disagreeable book to read but I loved your analysis of its place in the Hugos and the complete limitations of the novel. Great work!

  2. I knew it was coming when I decided to read through the Hugo award winning novels, so even though it was not a great book, it was good to see it first hand. Fortunately there are lots of really good Hugo Award winning novels on tap.

  3. The Hugo--Scientology conspiracy, perhaps? Also, agree with Magemanda that this was a great review with some nice historical background. Thank you!

  4. David Langford apparently looked into the idea that the book's Hugo win was the result of Scientology ballot stuffing, but decided that was unlikely. Clifton was a popular short fiction writer at the time, and he thinks that accounts for the win. It is still somewhat mystifying given the potential competition though. I'd have given it to The Caves of Steel.