They’d Rather Be Right, also known as The Forever Machine, is a 1954 novel by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley that was originally published as a serial story in Astounding Magazine. It was an interesting read if a bit drawn out. Though it did win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955 (which apparently is a controversial win). Anyhoo, let’s get into it.
The story follows Joe Carter, a telepath, and his two professors at Hoxworth University, Jonathan Billings, Dean of Psychosomatic Research, and Professor Hoskins, as they work to build Bossy, a machine that can tell the future. At first, everyone is excited about Bossy, but then the government shuts her down, so our protagonists go into hiding to continue to build her. In the end, Bossy is able to confer immortality on people, but with a catch: the person must be willing to let go of all preconceived notions, ideas, beliefs, etc. that are not based on solid fact. By doing so, they release all the tensions from their mind and body, thereby achieving a higher awareness, resulting in a youthful body and telepathic powers.
While I’m not a huge fan of the writing of They’d Rather Be Right, the novel does deal with many interesting themes, and includes observations that are prescient today. (I personally am always astounded by how much history repeats itself, which could also be a takeaway from this story.)
Belief, Evidence, Data
The main theme of the novel seems to be how humans are incapable of living without prejudice/false ideas. The authors season the story heavily with their own truths and admonitions about people as a whole, and how we always prefer our own answers and beliefs, and see everything through our own lens, rather than completely objectively.
“Man generally believes what he prefers to believe. Most evidence can be twisted to filter through his screen mesh of prejudices and tensions, so that it confirms rather than confounds.”
“A human being is seldom bothered with insufficient data; often the less he has the more willing he is to give a firm opinion; and man prefers some answer, even a wrong one, to the requirement that he dig deeper and find out the facts.”
I’m constantly fascinated by human perception and reality. We all know that our brains literally create our world for us, just check out any episode of Brain Games. In order that we may actually move through the world, our brains are constantly picking and choosing what to perceive and what to ignore.
“You’ve got to remember that sanity in a person or a civilization is like a small boat on the surface of an ocean. If the subterranean depths get roiled up enough, the boat capsizes and there’s nothing but the storming chaos of madness.” “Is that the way we appear to you, Joe?” “That’s the way man is.”
In the context of the novel, this means that Bossy is inevitably unable to confer immortality on more than one person because most people hold on to their beliefs so strongly. They can’t let them go, not even for something better. Bossy only works with raw data. She makes no assumptions or draws any conclusions unless she has enough data to do so. She is the complete opposite of a human being.
Mass Psychology & Hysteria
Another interesting aspect of They’d Rather Be Right is how the public attitude and acceptance or rejection of Bossy sways throughout the story. In the beginning, the nation is excited about Bossy, then quickly comes to fear and reject her because they don’t understand her and are afraid such a machine would take jobs and render humans useless. Later still, Bossy returns to public favour, then again falls out of favour. One of the characters in the story, a PR man, is responsible for bringing Bossy back into favour in the public eye and knows just when to manipulate the zeitgeist in order to achieve this.
“The mass psychology of the public mind was like that. Potential would build up, higher and higher, and still there would be no mass reaction…Then some insignificant little thing, some complete triviality, would seed the public mind, and a raging storm, over apparently nothing, would ensue. To those who had no conception of the forces of mass psychology, this made the public mind unpredictable.”
This facet of the novel is especially interesting because it’s so relevant to today. We are very much living in an outrage age, perhaps due to our personal media saturation. Some of this can certainly be good and fruitful and beneficial, but most of it is an on-fire trash can of hate and bullying. The online world can really be awful sometimes, and that techno-saturation allows the outrage to grow to a critical mass extremely quickly. *shudders*
Being Right vs. Being Wrong
In the end, the novel seems to come down to the idea that if you can let go of your own beliefs and prejudices, the rewards are far beyond what you could imagine. But the first necessary step towards immortality and telepathy is to admit that you were wrong about many things.
“She is a challenge to your willingness to admit that you might not be right, that you might not already have all the answers. She is a challenge to your willingness to learn rather than to argue.”
Strengths & Weaknesses
If I had to pick a strength of the novel, I’d say that I enjoyed how it dealt with issues of psychology, as mentioned above. These are really interesting themes to explore and the premise of the story and of the Bossy machine a great way to tackle it.
I had a hard time reading They’d Rather Be Right because it was about 95% telling rather than showing. If you’re unfamiliar with the age-old writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” it basically means that writers should describe characters and events in such a way that they are showing the reader what’s going on rather than telling the reader what’s going on. Consider the following example:
“Operation Bossy became a familiar term in the administrative offices of Washington, and throughout the industrial and educational life of the nation. As with most other top-secret projects, everybody knew about it and was talking about it. The stories grew with the telling, and Joe’s insistence to Billings that it be kept in the mechanical language began to have reason behind it. It was merely another form of the guided missile. No one realized what was really happening, not even the men working at its central core-not even Billings.”
This is a large bit of exposition that tells us a bunch of things in quick succession, rather than shows them. For example, we don’t get a scene with dialogue in which Joe and Billings discuss keeping the publicly shared information about Bossy in the mechanical language. We are told that Joe tells this to Billings, but we don’t see it happen.
Sometimes expositions is necessary, absolutely. But in They’d Rather Be Right, every third paragraph is a long such paragraph, and it really bogs down the pace of the story and the pace of reading. Clifton and Riley tell us everything rather than show us everything.
In the end, I’m not a huge fan of They’d Rather Be Right. I like the ideas the story grapples with, but I really didn’t enjoy the writing style/the reading of it. Too many large swaths of exposition really bogged down the pace and made it quite boring, unfortunately. I’m not sure I’d recommend this one.
The next story on My List, I Am Legend, is already turning out to be one of my favourites. Stayed tuned for that review!
The Second Golden Age of Science Fiction Megapack. “They’d Rather be Right” by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. Rockville: Wildside Press, 2014. Kindle Edition.