Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Review - They'd Rather Be Right

They'd Rather Be Right
by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

So the first Hugo award went to one of the all-time classics of science fiction. So naturally it was followed up by a book that is widely considered to be the worst novel to ever win the prize.

They'd Rather Be Right isn't my pick for the worst; I have a hard time picking a single book as the worst. It is in the list of books that I can't even conceive of why people voted for them. It has been out of print for years and new printings are particularly sporadic mainly because the novel is only notable for the Hugo award.

In They'd Rather Be Right Joe Carter is a psychic who is on the run from the law with two college professors. Together they created a computer that...

I'm finding it difficult to go on because it is so incredibly stupid. The big problem with They'd Rather Be Right mainly comes down to philosophy. It combines two rather disliked schools of thought that were forming in the early fifties with a bit of Nietzsche to make for one rather disturbing whole. The fundimental premise is that Scientology and objectivism will turn you into an immortal, psychic Nietzschian Übermench.


Okay, it wasn't "Scientology" at that point so I guess it was "Dianetics and objectivism will turn you into an immortal, psychic Nietzschian Übermench," but the principle is the same.

The computer they made was programmed with only objectively provable facts. I'm going to be generous to the plot and take "computer" in this context to mean more of an "electronic brain" than a calculating device. So this computer, nicknamed Bossy for its resemblance to a cow's head, has only facts and the establishment is scared of it and are chasing our heroes because of those fears. Apparently having only objectively provable facts means that it makes perfect moral judgments.


Personally I'd be terrified of that too if a bunch of people said that such a thing would completely replace all decision making because it was perfect. Not so much that I'd want to hunt down and kill the people who made it but that's the world we're dealing with in They'd Rather Be Right.

So our heroes are in hiding and Joe decides to test an idea he's had on the elderly ex-prostitute they're staying with. By hooking her up to Bossy the computer is able to remove her subjective viewpoints and the book presents this as a good thing.


She becomes young again and gains psychic powers as well as a self-righteous attitude. She decides that societal nudity taboos have no purpose and so goes wandering off without her clothes on. When she is promptly arrested the fact that Bossy can grant immortality gets out out and everyone wants to use it regardless of the fact that it scrambles your brain. It doesn't work on the bad hearted people, though, because they want to hold on to their ideals. They'd rather be right (hence the title).

Subscribing particular attitudes to authors based on their writing can be a fool's game. Try to put every idea Heinlein advanced in his novels together and you'd swear he had multiple personalities. Still, the characterization in the novel makes me believe that the philosophy presented in the novel is something close to what the authors actually believed. There is no consideration of other viewpoints on the hero's part, no discussion of alternatives. They're the shining beacons of righteousness while their enemies perform very petty evils. The whole result reads like Left Behind for Randian Scientoligists. (Are there such people these days? Maybe that's the reason why the book doesn't stay in print.)

I can't recommend They'd Rather Be Right for the quality of the writing or the ideas; both are among the worst I've encountered in science fiction (most licensed novels have worse writing but it's a near thing). Unless you want to check out the bottom of the barrel or read all of the Hugo winning novels stay away.