They’d Rather Be Right/The Forever Machine, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
Published: Astounding Science Fiction (Analog), 1954; Carroll & Graf, 1992
Awards Won: Hugo Award
“When the government orders that a psychologist design an airplane autopilot system, the psychologist in question, Dr. Billings, promptly concludes that the only way forward is to build a machine that has all the capabilities of a human mind. To aid in his endeavour, he recruits a lonely young telepath named Joe to help spur his team onward.
It soon becomes clear that what they are creating is something else entirely. Their new artificial intelligence, ‘Bossy’, is able to build an understanding of the universe from various facts fed into her by her creators. She can then use her understanding to conduct psychological therapy on patients, rendering them telepathic and eternally youthful. But what is the price for Bossy’s rejuvenation, and is the world ready?” ~Allie
This book has a reputation as one of the worst Hugo winners, so I knew what I was getting into when I picked it up. I’d like to have read all of the Hugo winners one day, so that means checking out a few weaker books (I have yet to read The Wanderer) along with the good ones. In this case, I’d say the reputation was well earned. I actually read the later-published version of the novel, The Forever Machine, which also includes two related short stories.
A science fiction novel’s level of predictive power is not necessarily the most important gauge of it’s quality, but I think They’d Rather be Right is about as successful as these folk. Computer languages were a pretty new development in the 1950s, so I can see how it would be hard to predict what sorts of things would be easy, hard, or impossible with computing systems. In another area, I thought it was pretty funny that citizens in this fictional world found corporations to be more trustworthy than governments. I know speculative fiction is bound to get some of its predictions wrong, but when something is this dated and off, it tends to get in the way of engaging with the story.
I was also not really aligned to the biases of the novel, which were applied to the narrative with a heavy-hand. For instance, there’s a strong anti-scientist and anti-education vibe, where educated people, particularly professors, are shown as having rigid mindsets and an inability to adapt to new situations. This does not make sense to me, since it seems obvious that educated people must have chosen their path because they enjoy learning new things. There’s also a weird contempt for psychologists, paired with a respect for paranormal psychology. All the ‘orthodox’ psychologists are portrayed as uncaring, arrogant, and incompetent. On the other hand, unconventional psychology is able to magically grant open-minded people eternal youth and telepathic powers. It’s possible that the novel might have been in line with some common ideas in the 1950s, but I don’t think it fits particularly well with our society’s reality anymore.
The characters were also a bit inconsistent, and their actions did not always seem to follow how real people behave. For instance, Joe seems to have basically unlimited power to control the thoughts of all the people around him, but for some reason he seems to forget about this ability during a few crises they face. In one of these crises, they are attacked by a mob of people who declare themselves to be on a witch hunt, and who use witch-hunt rhetoric. I don’t know if things were different in the ‘50s, but nowadays the term ‘witch hunt’ is generally used as a derogatory term for a mob attacking innocent people over perceived differences. It didn’t really make sense to me for a group to proudly claim the label for themselves. Given all of my complaints about the book, it might seem strange to say that I appreciated the way it ended. If a magical psychology machine like Bossy did exist, their final approach to handling her existence is something I can get behind.
My Rating: 1.5/5
I think They’d Rather be Right was a pretty controversial Hugo win at the time, and it has since earned a reputation as one of the weakest Hugo award winners. It hasn’t aged well at all, and many of its ideas about the future are entertainingly wrong. The novel also carries some pretty blatant biases that I don’t agree with, which I find kind of ironic in a book that is about the need for humanity to throw off their prejudices and preconceptions. I liked how they ended up dealing with Bossy, though, and parts of the story were pretty (unitentionally, I think) funny. Still, it was interesting to see what fans voted for as the best novel written in 1954. I would only recommend this one to other Hugo-winner completionists.