I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Tonight’s destination is the 1995 station. Construction has only just finished, so kindly forgive the dust, and the overuse of the word ‘yo’. Please keep all hands and legs inside the vehicle as we pull into the next station on our journey through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
They’d Rather Be Right
(Also known as The Forever Machine)
Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1954
published as a separate novel in 1957
Bossy was designed as the ultimate computer. Fed only facts – only direct observations, not a single conclusion drawn from those observations – her logic and understanding of the universe would surpass that of any man. Of course, the world’s lone telepath thinks that Bossy could be much more than that – and he’s right. Bossy can make you immortal, if you’re wise enough to admit you know nothing at all. But how many people are actually capable of sacrificing their arrogant preconceptions in exchange for true understanding?
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
This was actually the sixth book I read for the Hugo Project, rather than the second. They’d Rather Be Right has a reputation for being…bad. Certainly the worst to ever win the Hugo award. Which means that even may wonderful local library system, which has a huge selection of old books and self-published books and books on things like paganism and gender identities, does not have a copy.
Fortunately, I have mad connections, yo. By which I mean, I know people whose have access to the University of Wisconsin library system, whose sole copy is currently in my hot little hands. Muahahahaha.
Anyway. I’m sure you’re all wondering: after all that effort, was it worth it? Or is They’d Rather Be Right as bad as everyone says?
And the answer is (drum roll please!)…
This book has ideas, which are challenging and interesting and provoke some interesting meditations on the human condition. However. The style is exceptionally off-putting, so it takes a good deal of willpower to look past it and actually engage with those ideas.
Mostly this book feels like the self-important theorizing of a young white man who is overly impressed with his own philosophical genius. I’ve spent a lot of time with very intelligent young people of all genders and races, but I’ve noticed a pattern among many of the very intelligent young white men I’ve worked with. They’re smart, very smart. Their brains are on overdrive, producing all sorts of radical new (or not-so-new), controversial ideas. Which is all fine a good. The problem is what they do after they come up with an idea.
Perhaps due to the incredible privilege that comes with being a very intelligent white man, their instinct is not, “Woah, that’s an interesting conclusion. Huh. I should think more about this, maybe run it by some other people to see what they think,” but “I AM A GENIUS. I MUST TELL THE WORLD MY AWESOME IDEA, PREFERABLY IN OVER-LABORED LANGUAGE.”
I’m generalizing, but I’ve seen it happen a lot. And They’d Rather Be Right is exactly this kind of very intelligent young white male bombast. The sentences are too long and the language too clumsy. The main character, Joe, is a very intelligent 22-year-old white man who just happens to be the world’s only telepath, and the only person who sees the truth of what Bossy can do for the world, and manipulate everyone into moving to the Glorious Future.
Anyone who’s ever spent any time with very intelligent young white men is probably rolling their eyes right now, preparing to suffer quietly through a long diatribe on the very intelligent young white man’s BRILLIANT IDEA.
Honestly, given the fact that this book is all about the arrogance of humanity, about our tendency to cling to our assumptions and our preconceived notions of what’s right over what is real, the irony of Joe is astounding. I spent the entire last half of the book waiting for Joe to be wrong, to be fallible, to be forced to confront his own misconceptions, and to question the morality of his continual psychic manipulation of those around him. Which happened at the end of the book, bringing it to a satisfying conclusion.
Ha ha ha ha ha. No, I’m kidding. This is the 1950s, yo. Intelligent white men are always right.
If you can get past the overwhelming WHITE MALE BRILLIANCE, there are some interesting ideas in the book. As I’ve mentioned, it’s mostly about the way humans cling to their own worldviews at the expense of everything else, and there are some challenging and insightful comments that go along with that. But, you know, WHITE MALE BRILLIANCE.
On to the social equality review!
Race: Joe is identified as white on page one, which could be viewed in a positive light (we’re not expected to automatically assume Joe is white), but is more likely not, since it’s done in the context of a police officer determining he’s not likely to cause a problem. Because WHITENESS. Also there’s a grand total of one non-white character in the book, the “negro starter” named Jim who appears for about two pages. I think a starter is the elevator operator? Also, can we acknowledge the irony of naming a black character Jim? I’m gonna call this one a fail.
Gender/Sexuality: Ignoring a couple of secretaries and a nurse, the only woman in the book is Mabel. Who is an elderly ex-prostitute who becomes the first test subject for Bossy’s immortality-wisdom transformation. Which of course makes her a babe who falls in love with Joe. And then there’s this gem about her relationship with Joe: “…No woman could fill all of a man’s life…She did not try to occupy more than a woman’s role in Joe’s life.” (143). Which would be pretty good advice if it were, “…no person could fill all of another’s life…zie did not try to occupy the whole of zer partner’s life.” (Anyone who can find me a book from the 1950s that says that will win the ridiculous hand-knitted item of their choice.) But the gendered framing clearly indicates that Joe should be all of Mabel’s life, but she can’t be all of his. Oh, and Bossy is continually referred to as both ‘she’ and ‘a tool’ because women are objects, yo.
Other: Ageism and fatphobia, as well as implied ableism. Bossy can ‘fix’ all the damage (aging, weight gain, etc) to a body by removing cellular memory of tensions (just go with it). No discussion of how that would apply to a person with a disability/abnormality, whether genetic or accidental. Would Bossy ‘fix’ either of those? Would she remove my hearing loss, my depression, my synesthesia, the slight curvature of my spine? Would she replace my appendix and my wisdom teeth? What about conditions considered more severe by the able majority – deafness, paralysis, severe mental and developmental disabilities? What is the gold standard to which Bossy ‘fixes’ people?
All in all, I’m conflicted about this book. Mostly I feel ‘meh’ about it. It did make me think, but the writing is abysmal and the execution of the ideas problematic. The ideas themselves are thought-provoking, but there’s too much arrogance (especially in the always-right-ness of Joe) in the book for me to approach it as a thought experiment. So…read it if you want. Or don’t. You’ll be fine either way.
OVERALL RANKING: 5 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
All quotes and page numbers are from the Starblaze/Donning Company edition, published in 1981.