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What Do You Know? The Second Hugo Winner Redeems Itself

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Would you rather be a jerk or immortal? Doesn't sound like a tough choice, but Mark Clifton and Frank Riley make the case that it is in They'd Rather Be Right, 1955's Hugo-winning novel.

The Wikipedia entry for the book says* that They'd Rather Be Right, also published as The Forever Machine, "has often been considered the worst novel ever to win a Hugo." So it was with muted enthusiasm that I logged into Amazon and ordered a used copy. (The book is no longer being printed, as best I can tell, although I see it's available for the Kindle.) I confess, too, that I didn't dive right in when the mailperson delivered it a few days later.


As it turned out, once I actually started reading, I was pleasantly surprised. This should come as no shock — first, my expectations were low, and second, the Wiki entry doesn't even have a citation for its claim; the only external link from it is to this review by Dave Langford (himself a Hugo winner in several categories), although the review is indeed unequivocally negative.

I'll certainly agree with Langford that Clifton and Riley do more telling than showing in this novel, and I'm of the opinion too that this is generally a bad thing. And I'll even buy that They'd Rather Be Right is "an implausible award-winner," as he puts it. And yet...


The story is about three men on the run — two professors and a grad student. They're in hiding in San Francisco because they've built a supercomputer into which only pure facts — no assumptions, no theories — have been programmed. The supercomputer, Bossy, isn't quite an artificial intelligence, because she never demonstrates any individual initiative, but she can tell right from wrong, and in the mildly dystopic future setting of the book, where the government uses "opinion control" to keep the public in line, she's seen as a threat to humanity's place of primacy. Or something. It's not entirely clear what the public's initial problem is with Bossy, and that lack of detail is the sort of problem that plagues the story.

The public is right to be concerned, though. What Bossy is, though it's never mentioned by name (probably because Vernor Vinge wasn't even a teenager at the time), is the Singularity. Is she the first Singularity in SF? I don't know. She's definitely the first in a Hugo-winning novel.

What Bossy can do is, through "psychosomatic therapy," take a normal person and erase years of accumulated stress from their cells, essentially resetting the person, freeing them from a lifetime of frustrations and problems stemming from the unfounded assumptions that start afflicting everyone shortly after birth — and making them more or less permanently young. The catch is that the patient has to be willing to give up all the biases and prejudices, about themselves and others, that have been pounded into them.


Yeah, it's a little silly, but far from the silliest idea in SF. And it's a metaphor, and Clifton and Riley's telling is such that you can suspend your disbelief without much trouble. (Certainly, their recognition that you have to want to change for psychotherapy to work rings truer than the Freudian bits in their Hugo predecessor.) And although Dave Langford is arguably right in his review that the big idea here is "lamentably undeveloped," on the other hand, there are a lot of different ways to write a good book. They'd Rather Be Right does have a lot — like, a lot — of those sort of pontificatory passages about How Dumb People Are and How Smart We Could Be. And I can certainly empathize with readers who hate that shit. At the same time, plenty of great authors — Heinlein, Asimov, Card, Simmons, Stephenson, and innumerable others – have done it with frequency, and it can be very satisfying.**


And in They'd Rather Be Right's case, it might even be healthy, because the one core idea the book focuses on — again and again — is How Little We Know, and how reflexively we adopt and cling to what we think we know as truth. Proponents of hard science fiction lament the dearth of scientific accuracy in the genre, but far more important to me than whether a fictional technology is possible is driving home an idea that is the very foundation of science: that we only know what we know, and that what we know could change at any moment, subject to additional data. Science's job is not to preclude.

Rather does some other things well, too: Its handling of telepathy rings utterly true; and if you've read as much Marshall McLuhan as I have, you may find its notion of multi-valued facts, as well as its calling-out of the specialist mind-set, eerily prescient. And the workout at the end of the book — tycoon Howard Kennedy's solution to the Bossy problem — isn't stunningly original, but Slashdot types should appreciate it. (The final chapter, however, could be cut completely and the story would be better for it.)


Anyway, I can see how it was an implausible award-winner. But still, it reminded me, several times over, not to assume anything I don't actually know (like how good a book I haven't read is), and it did so in a way that'll stick. I'm not sure I'd run out and hunt down a hard copy if I were you, but think about getting it if you've got a Kindle.

*At least, as of this writing. Wikipedia changes, you know.

**The tone and style of They'd Rather Be Right are especially reminiscent of another classic work of science fiction that usually doesn't get regarded as such: Atlas Shrugged. Clifton and Riley aren't as compelling of novelists as Ayn Rand, but their philosophy holds up a lot better under scrutiny; one could do worse than administer their book as an antidote to hers.


"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other Sunday. In the next installment, on November 15: Double Star, by Robert Heinlein, from 1956.


Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found here.