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Hugo My Way – They’d Rather Be Right (aka The Forever Machine) by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley #BookReview

Bossy was right. Always. Invariably. She was limited only in that she had to have facts — not assumptions — with which to work. Given those facts, her conclusions and predictions were inevitably correct.

And that made Bossy a ‘ticking bomb.’

Bossy had been designed as a servomechanism for guiding airplanes. But she became something much greater: a hypercomputer. Soon the men who worked with Bossy found themselves able to solve their problems, to erase their prejudices – in short, to think.

Did the world welcome Bossy with open arms and glad cries? No, because for four decades the world had been in the grip of opinion control, and Bossy represented a serious threat to that dominance. So Bossy had to go underground, and work in hiding. Which was why Joe Carter, the worlds only true telepath, and two brilliant Professors had to assume the role of Skid Row bums.

All this is only the beginning of one of the most thoughtfully written, and thought provoking, science fiction novels ever written. It shows convincingly and compellingly, what would happen if everyone in the world were given a single blunt command: Think or die.

Only a small handful of people are mature enough to realize that they don’t know all the answers. And it was only to this handful that Bossy offered the greatest gift of all: immortality.

But all people wanted immortality, wanted it with a fixed and burning desire. And gradually the tension increased, the mobs grew restless, the military became more demanding—and the ‘bomb’ ticked swiftly on.

And it was up to Joe Carter to stave off catastrophe.

Title: They’d Rather Be Right | Author: Mark Clifton and Frank Riley | Publisher: Nelson Doubleday, Inc. | Pub. Year: 1955 | Pages: 181 | Genre: Science Fiction | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: No

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As I mentioned in the first installment of Hugo My Way, the Hugo’s skipped a year between 1953 with “The Demolished Man” and 1955 with “They’d Rather Be Right (aka The Forever Machine).” When I started this project I skimmed the list of winners and was excited to see some books and authors I was not familiar with, including Mark Clifton and Frank Riley who wrote “They’d Rather Be Right.” While I look forward to reading old favorites such as Starship Troopers and Dorsai, it is fun to read something that was acknowledged as a great work that you know nothing about.

That was the idea.

Jo Walton wrote that this book is the answer to the trivia question “Which is the worst book ever to win the Hugo.” I’ve got a long way to go with this project, but dear God I hope she’s right.  The alternative is frightening.

Clifton and Riley have a lot of SF elements to work with: AI, immortality, mind reading, mind control, precognition, protective mind force field, and a police state. They also had a blender.  Not a cheap Sears special but a fine Vitamix Pro, the kind that will take a pounding and last.  All the ideas get chopped up and mixed together, and let me tell you not all Smoothies work. This one had too much Rutabaga and Marmite for my taste.

The protagonist fundamentally matures in temperament and powers twice almost overnight with no real discussion.  The character development amounts to just writing the characters as behaving differently.  Joe is a lonely kid, isolated and insecure.  Then he’s a self-confident freedom fighter.  Eventually he assures Kennedy, who is helping the effort, that Kennedy will be allowed to think “until you decide you want immortality.” That’s said with a laugh.  Some good guy.

The plot isn’t all that interesting so I’ll just skip it. The authors preach and preach and preach.  They hate admen who can convince anybody to buy anything. They hate the people who will believe anything. They actually write “Guided as he was by a rigid intellectual honesty, that one faculty which makes the scientist differ from any other calling, …” I’m a scientist and that made me throw up a little bit in my mouth. I get the feeling that the authors despised everybody other than scientists, and perhaps many of them.

There are factual errors, such as putting skid row in San Francisco. And there are formatting errors.  Perhaps the use of “***” to mark scene breaks within a chapter is a new convention, but I have never seen it used to break up two paragraphs where the scene, characters and subject is the same on both sides.  It’s a real spanner in the works.

As with the first Hugo, there was no known nomination process or slate of other works considered, though that would soon change.  Jo Walton noted that other works that fell within the same time period included “A Mirror for Observers”, “Mission of Gravity”, “I Am Legend”, and “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Among others. Yet the award went to “They’d Rather Be Right.” Some things are inexplicable.

I had a tough time finding a copy of this book, ultimately settling on the collection “The Second Golden Age of Science Fiction MEGAPACK ®: Mark Clifton” which is at Amazon. Should you really wish to read it.


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Next up is 1956 where the Hugo’s grow up a bit by taking an annual format with a nominated slate of considered works.  Heinlein wins his first Hugo for “Double Star” which I may or may not have read 40 years ago.  The Wikipedia page makes it sound like one part The Prince and the Pauper, one part The Parent Trap (original), and one part Dave (the movie). Still, this is Heinlein so I have hope.

Published inHugo My WayScience Fiction Book ReviewsUncategorizedUnstarred Reviews
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