Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Hugo Initiative: They'd Rather Be Right (1955, Best Novel)

Dossier: Clifton, Mark and Frank Reilly. They'd Rather Be Right [Astounding, Aug - Nov 1954]

Filetype: Novel

Executive Summary: They’d Rather Be Right is a novel about human potential and the need to strip away all prejudice and preconceptions to be able to reach that near limitless potential. Individuals may get close on their own, if they are driving by logic over emotion, but something external is needed to drive the internal changes. Two scientists (and a telepath, it seems) have developed a “cybernetic brain”, which I think is something of an early form of AI. That brain, inexplicably named Bossy, is so advanced that even the scientists who made it aren’t really sure how they made the intuitive leaps to actually create Bossy. Bossy, though deep therapy and science so handwavy it might as well be magic, can transform a person so much that age will melt away and true intellectual superiority is possible. The only catch is the aforementioned requirement for the individual to be willing to admit they have prejudices and that they were wrong about, well, anything. Hence the title. It’s a difficult standard to meet. 

The focus character of the novel is a young telepath named Joe who appears to be the driving force of everything that happens here. He uses his powers to change people’s minds and push them to get what he wants. Everyone else is secondary, including those scientists, a grifter, the older prostitute who is the first to benefit from Bossy’s therapy, and a wealthy industrialist / newspaperman. They’d Rather Be Right deals with a general distrust of humanity as it is with an assumption of the possibility of the human mind being unlocked and freed from base prejudices. 

I’m also curious where Mark Clifton came up with the naming of “Bossy” for the “cybernetic brain” / AI he developed with Alex Apostolides in “Hide! Hide! Witch”, the first Bossy story published before They’d Rather Be Right. It’s a terrible name. 

Legacy: They’d Rather Be Right was serialized across four issues of editor John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction in 1954 (Aug – Nov) and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955. The Hugo Awards were in their infancy, having only been established two years prior in 1953 and then promptly taking a year off before returning in 1955. Clifton was a fairly popular short fiction writer at the time with stories published in Astounding, Galaxy, If, and Universe. Two of those stories were precursors to They’d Rather Be Right (“Crazy Joey” and “Hide! Hide! Witch!”, both published in Astounding in 1953). 

Fans today are accustomed to being able to access detailed nominating and voting statistics, so we can dive in and not only see which novels were finalists, we can see what works were close and how the ranked choice voting shows the readers preferences between novels to build a consensus pick. In the instance of the 1955 Hugo Awards, we only know the names of the winners. They’d Rather Be Right won Best Novel. We have no idea what the other finalists may have been (though Jo Walton has some reasonable guesses based on publication date and relative importance in the field. Relative importance only gets you so far because They’d Rather Be Right will always be recognized as a Hugo Award winner. The relative importance of They’d Rather Be Right in science fiction and fandom is that it is also generally recognized as the worst Best Novel winner of all time. 

They’d Rather Be Right was collected and published in book form in 1957, was republished again the next year in an abridged form and retitled The Forever Machine. It has been republished several times since then. The edition I read was the 1983 Science Fiction Book Club edition. It has even been published in Easton Press’s Masterpieces of Science Fiction collection, in which company it seems somewhat out of place. 

One of the lasting points of conversation regarding They’d Rather Be Right is a curiosity of *how exactly” it won Best Novel at the 1955 Worldcon in Cleveland. Doctor Strangemind attempted to clarify the three most plausible reasons for the novel’s Hugo win. The first is that it was part of a block vote campaign by supporters of L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics. The second is a push by editor John W. Campbell. The third is that it was the beneficiary of a split vote between other likely contenders and pulled off the win that way. A fourth option, which I’ll put forward, is the simple option that the particular set of fans who attended Clevention honestly preferred They’d Rather Be Right over the other choices. Enough voters did, obviously, but there is always a chance it was a true consensus pick for those readers at that time. Since then, it holds the generally unargued distinction of being the worst Hugo Award winner of all time.

In Retrospect: [I knew going into this reading project that I wanted to read They’d Rather Be Right. It’s not that I *want* to read bad novels, but They’d Rather Be Right holds an infamous place in Hugo Award history. Look through the list of Hugo Award winning novels and it is a list of legendary novel after legendary novel written by the giants of the genre’s past. Nestled among those legendary novels is They’d Rather Be Right, a novel I hadn’t heard of by a pair of writers I’ve never heard of. It stood out. Over time, I learned of the novel’s reputation and I’ve since read one story by Clifton reprinted by Judith Merril in her in 1956 anthology S-F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy. The Hugo Initiative was the perfect opportunity to see if it the novel lives down to its reputation. 

Is They’d Rather Be Right the worst Hugo Award winning novel of all time? I’m in the minority of readers who hated The Three-Body Problem, so that will always be in contention for my personal Worst Hugo Winner of All Time category. I haven’t read everything. If my statistics at Worlds Without End are accurate, I’ve read 30 of the 68 winning novels, which is enough to say that there is a significant amount of fiction out there which I haven’t read yet that might be in contention for the dishonor of being the worst Hugo Award winning novel of all time. 

They’d Rather Be Right is very much of its time and it does not hold up to a modern reader (or at least to this modern reader). I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the reputation of the novel because there is no escaping that, but I did go into They’d Rather Be Right in the hopes and expectation that it would exceed that reputation. I was eager to be delighted and surprised. 

I was not. 

There is an era (and style) of science fiction where the stories were more about working out some sort of idea with the characters (and I use that word loosely) declaiming and often internally monologuing high concept ideas and ideals than they were about characters who were actual characters rather than cardboard cutouts. They’d Rather Be Right fits firmly in the middle of that era, and also hits on the trope of “psionics” as a scientific endeavor (the study of the mind and other supernatural mental powers). That’s fine as far as it goes, but at best They’d Rather Be Right is a very workman-like novel playing with an idea but not necessarily doing so with any particular craft. Having read Astounding, Alec Nevala-Lee’s biography of editor John W. Campbell (and Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard), I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the stories Campbell had an active hand in shaping – both in terms of the ideas and partial re-writes. 

Looking back, They’d Rather Be Right is a clunky, sexist novel (the only female characters I can remember are a prostitute and two secretaries) that doesn’t live up to the best of the era, let alone as something that stands up to the harsh light of history. Serialized in four installments, I do expect readers to have been interested in seeing what happened next in the story and it was obviously well regarded to get enough Hugo Award votes, but reading They’d Rather Be Right was a chore. The one saving grace, for me, was They’d Rather Be Right is a very short novel (150 pages or so). Much longer and I might not have finished.]


For its time: 3/5
Read today: 1/5.
Gernsback Quotient: 4/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.