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Regrets, I’ve Had A Few

They’d Rather Be Right

By Mark Clifton & Frank Riley 

13 Feb, 2024

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Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s 1957 They’d Rather Be Right is a science fiction fix-up novel. They’d Rather Be Right was also published as The Forever Machine.

They’d Rather Be Right has the reputation of being the worst novel to win the Hugo. Hyperbole or cold fact? Let’s find out!

In the latter part of the 20th century, kindly academic Dr. Martin realizes that Joey, the troubled boy he is assessing, is a telepath. Joey’s parents are conformist knuckle-draggers. The end result is that rather than being hailed as the next step in human evolution, poor Joey — later Joe — is consigned to a childhood of stupefying conformity.

Thirteen years later, Martin’s associate Dr. Billings, Dean of Psychosomatic Research at Hoxworth University, has desperate need of Joe’s unique talent.

The government mandates the creation of a machine that will prevent airplane and other vehicle collisions. To better motivate researchers, traitors unwilling to cooperate with the project will be sent to prison. Dr. Martin is the latest unfortunate researcher to be saddled with the task.

Obviously, an electromechanical device able to duplicate and exceed the capacity of a human brain, in order to guide vehicles, would be a sort of brain itself. Heretofore, all of the unfortunates roped into the project have not been brain experts. Martin is enough of a brain scientist to know his expertise will be insufficient. However, Joe’s telepathic powers could provide enough insight to ensure success.

Scarcely have the researchers created their robot brain, nicknamed Bossy, when public sentiment turns against the project. What if Bossy is better than humans? What if Bossy conquers the world? The only reasonable courses of action are mob violence or perhaps jail terms for researchers who only undertook the project after being threatened with lengthy jail terms.

Billings, his associate Hoskins, and Joe escape both mob and government, fleeing with Bossy’s components. Their eventual refuge is the Deluxe Hotel on San Francisco’s skid row. The hotel is owned by Mabel Monahan, formerly a lady of negotiable virtue, who has invested her considerable earnings in the hotel. Having led a life that would not bear close examination, the fugitives are sure that Mabel will turn a blind eye to whatever her new tenants are doing.

Mabel will play a central role in the events to come. Among Bossy’s capabilities, a potential to restore youth to old people, provided that the subject has the right frame of mind. Mabel happens to be an ideal test case. In short order Mabel is rejuvenated, turned into a youthful beauty who is just as head-turning as she was all those decades ago. She’s even more head-turning, because she forgets to wear clothes in her first foray into public.

Mabel has already been arrested many times; she previously escaped charges because her clients were rich and powerful. This latest arrest reveals that the beautiful woman arrested for public indecency is the same woman who, decades ago, was detained on far more lurid charges. Thus the world at large becomes aware that immortality — or at least rejuvenation — is possible.

Who will gain control of Bossy and possible eternal life? Will angry mobs descend once more on Bossy and her humans? Will there be a courtroom scene?

Most importantly, now that Mabel is a hottie again, will she enjoy carnal delights with Joe, said delights judiciously phrased to ensure that the scenes are not censored by Kay Tarrant?

Warning! This book could have been a Newbery Medal winner. The stray dog I didn’t mention earlier is introduced so that Joe’s parents can underline how awful they are by putting down the dog (who happens to be the only thing that Joe loves and trusts).

Mabel being the bed-breaking champion of carnal prowess she is, the only way that Mabel and Joe’s exuberant and no doubt extremely kinky lovemaking could elude Tarrant’s vigilance is by being entirely off-stage. Tarrant was relentless at pruning out dirty bits, but even she could do nothing about what characters got up to when they were not on the page. That said, what’s on the page has all the steamy eroticism of a Popular Mechanics article.

Cynics might say this novel reads as if the authors put all of editor John W. Campbell, Jr.’s known preferences — telepathy, human evolution, those darn hidebound scientists, general semantics, Big Thoughts Thunk Bigly, and so on — into a bag, shook it up, and poured the results onto the page. This isn’t entirely true — there is no sign of the Dean Drive — but it’s a fair charge. In the authors’ defense, catering to Campbell’s delusions was a surefire way to earn Astounding paychecks. Lots of SF authors did it. Clifton and Riley’s effort stands out only because fannish exuberance at Worldcon attracted attention that the book might otherwise have escaped.

Structurally, the book is a mess because it’s a fix-up (of Astounding stories) that were glued together when the art of fix-up was still primitive. It pretends to be a novel, but it reads like a series of short stories whose unifying theme was we’d sure like Mr. Campbell to pay us.”

What happens in the stories highlights various tropes dear to Campbell. Most of the characters are paper-thin, barely sufficient to purpose. When the narrative strays into humor, jokes are bolded, underlined and repeated a few times lest anyone miss the joke. The prose is sometimes marginally competent.

Is They’d Rather Be Right worth reading? No. Is this the worst Hugo winner? No, and not just because if it were to be worse than The Wanderer or Blackout/All Clear, this book would have to squirt cobra venom into the readers’ eyes. There were, as unlikely as the comments above may make it sound, story elements that were effective. Joe’s abusive childhood is horrifying but believable. Mabel is an amusing character who would have fared better as a rejuvenated libertine in a Thorne Smith novel than she did on the pages of Astounding. They’d Rather Be Right is not a very good book, but it’s not as awful as it could have been.

They’d Rather Be Right is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo).

I did not find They’d Rather Be Right at Chapters-Indigo.