This is only my second month spent reviewing Hugo Award winning novels in the order in which they won and I'm already up against the worst one ever. Well, that's the consensus to which the historians have come. A major strike against its worthiness is that it's hardly stayed in print ever since. In fact, after it was initially serialised in 'Astounding Science Fiction' in 1954, it didn't see print until 1957 and was heavily cut a year later for release as 'The Forever Machine'. It has been reprinted and translated, but I hadn't even laid eyes on a copy until this year, when I ordered one online, let alone read it.
Now that I've done that, I can say that I've read a lot worse but this really doesn't feel like a worthy Hugo Award winner. It's certainly not in the same class as any of the other various Hugo winners I've read thus far, including its predecessor, Alfred Bester's 'The Demolished Man' in 1953. While there was no nomination list published for 1955, I've read a number of books which would have been eligible, including such timeless classics as 'The Caves of Steel', 'I am Legend' and 'The Fellowship of the Ring'. The runner up was apparently Hal Clement's 'Mission of Gravity', still a highly regarded hard science fiction novel.
'They'd Rather Be Right', a title I'm still not grasping, won in 1955, because the Hugos skipped 1954 for some reason, and many have wondered why, some of them even delving into conspiracy theories to explain this odd anomaly in the taste of voters, who then, as now, were the attendees at that year's Worldcon. Wasn't it originally serialised in 'Astounding'? Hadn't they published 'Dianetics', the foundation of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology religion? They're suspicious characters, those cult members. Couldn't they have rigged the vote? I'm no fan of Scientologists but I'm not buying it. Maybe people in Ohio are just weird. Who knows.
'They'd Rather Be Right' is a novel by two authors, Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, only one of whom is likely to have been known to the audience. That's Clifton, who was the author of other science fiction novels, as well as a number of well-received short stories. He also worked in personnel and his insights into the human condition stem from his interviews of over 200,000 people he did while in that job. Riley is the pseudonym of Frank Rhylick and this may be the only science fiction he ever wrote. He was, however, an experienced writer, having been a syndicated travel columnist, the author of a string of mystery stories about Father Anton Dymek and an editor for the 'Los Angeles Times'. He also hosted a local radio show in L.A.
What they created constitutes a short book but one with less substance than pages. The authors don't seem interested in delving into any of their characters' motivations or explaining the central idea that the whole book is built around. Instead, they rabbit on about philosophy in redundant fashion. Whenever a paragraph is needed to explain a point, they give us six, any one of which would have done the job. If there's substance, it's in the cynicism they pour into the psychology of crowds, because, while people in this book can be smart individually, they're nothing but an amorphous mass to be easily manipulated by opinion controllers when in larger numbers. 'Opinion control' is a big thing here.
The story, or what passes for one, revolves around Bossy, a super-computer which has been fed only with facts. Initially, people believe that it's the creation of a pair of esteemed scientists at Hoxworth University: Prof. Billings, Dean of Psychosomatic Medicine, and Prof. Hoskins, Doctor of Cybernetics. However, the key man behind it is really their young assistant, Joe Carter, the one and only mind-reader on the planet. In fact, he isn't merely able to read minds; he can influence them too, by sharing his emotions telepathically. The authors use a couple of words for this ability, such as 'psionic' and especially 'somatic', which is notably overused.
We're in a vaguely dystopian world, but we're never sure whether it's an alternate one or just this one described in terms we don't usually use, such as the perennial 'opinion control'. On one hand, it's reminiscent of how the 'Ministry of Truth' instigated the 'bellyfeels' of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', published only five years earlier, but, on the other, the term is eerily reminiscent of a 'spin doctor' working in 'public relations'. Whether it's our world or not, it isn't ready for Bossy and so the book begins with it and its creators on the run, hiding in an underground apartment in San Francisco.
Somehow, Bossy, when fed enough plasma, can work miracles. The scientists hook up their landlady, Mabel, an ex-hooker who made good in real estate, and the super-computer optimises her brain and body through somatic therapy, returning this bloated 68-year-old woman to the prime of her youth. We later discover, when the same process is attempted on Dr. Billings and fails, that it was only possible with Mabel because she's open to change and has no beliefs or prejudices that she's not willing to give up. In other terms that come up a lot, she's open to replacing single-value ideas with multi-values, even though she, like we, probably has no idea what those are. As you can imagine, the world pays much more attention to the announcement of potential immortality, whether they understand the ramifications or not.
I'd suggest that I wish the authors had developed this more, but really I wish that they'd developed it, period. It just wasn't an approach they were interested in. Joe's a fascinating character, but we know little more about him when the book ends than we did when it began. Once Mabel is young and beautiful, she promptly falls for Joe, who's more than happy with her given that the process also gave her telepathic powers. He's no longer alone! It would seem appropriate to actually explore this concept, but the authors simply can't be bothered.
It's not all bad, but the highlights aren't particularly notable ones. There's a section midway through the book in which the authors provide a neat escalation of rumours. Not too much further in, there's a similar escalation of assumptions on behalf of a whole slew of people that's handled just as neatly. I liked how these sections were written and I often found myself smiling in appreciation at turns of phrase, epithets or how sentences leap out of control in ways that sound glorious when read aloud. So, there are good aspects to be found in and amongst the philosophising about science and psychology and whatnot, but they're not characters or plot or development.
And, without those things, this feels rather out of place on a list of Hugo Award winning novels. I'm on board at this point with it being the worst such example to date. Let's see if the coming months will turn up another that can even compete for that title. I know next month's won't because I've read it before. It's Robert A. Heinlein's 'Double Star', his first win of four. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For reviews of other Hugo winners click here