They’d Rather Be Right: Getting It Wrong


Source: The Way The Future Blogs, “Me and Alfie, Part 6: John W. Campbell and Dianetics.” You can read the conversation between Frederick Pohl and Alfred Bester here, and I highly recommend doing so, because it’s a fascinating and, frankly, hilarious, first-hand take on the relationship between Campbell (pictured, right) and the work of L. Ron Hubbard (left).

My copy of They’d Rather Be Right cost me one dollar. Wait, no – less than a dollar. A dollar was the total price for the Kindle download of a book called The Second Golden Age of Science Fiction MEGAPACK: Mark Clifton. It’s a collection of Clifton’s work that happens to include a Hugo Award-winning novel, as the book cover loudly proclaims. While I think the works of Mark Clifton are probably worth more than a buck American, I’m certainly not upset that I didn’t pay more. They’d Rather Be Right wasn’t awful, necessarily, but it sure as hell wasn’t good. I have officially managed to power through it in pretty good time, thanks to a combination of actual narrative enjoyment (“Hey, I really do want to know what happens next”) and growing impatience with the author’s endless pseudoscientific diatribes and contradictory proclamations about the nature of humankind, both dripping with made-up jargon that is never satisfactorily explained. It’s probably needless to point out that, while the former shouldn’t be discounted, the latter formed the bulk of my experience.

But we’ll get to that soon. For now, I thought it appropriate to begin with the first question anyone ever asks about They’d Rather Be Right, which is, “How the hell did this win a Hugo Award?”

The MEGAPACK claims They’d Rather Be Right was published in 1958, which is weird, considering it won the Hugo in 1955; my guess is that this particular version of They’d Rather Be Right was compiled in 1958. Originally, of course, it was a serial, published in four parts in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction during the legendary editorial reign of John W. Campbell. Prior to They’d Rather Be Right, however, Clifton had published two other stories, “Crazy Joey” and “Hide, Hide, Witch,” that feed directly into the plot of his Hugo winner. The MEGAPACK version, instead of acknowledging this discrepancy, simply begins with those two stories, considering them part of the novel. And really, that only makes sense. I have no idea how anyone would be able to follow They’d Rather Be Right without reading those two stories first, and indeed, I think it’s safe to assume that Hugo voters in 1955 would certainly have read them. After all, by this point they had become well accustomed to the magazine serial as the primary science fiction medium.

A quick history lesson: In 1926, Amazing Stories, the first pure science fiction magazine, was launched by a radio and electronics entrepreneur named Hugo Gernsback. Yep. That Hugo. This is the guy who is usually credited with coining the term “science fiction,” and is often considered the inventor of the genre (though on this last point, I would vehemently disagree). The stories published by Gernsback, and hence, science fiction as a whole during the late ‘20s and most of the ‘30s, tended toward pulp and camp, with very little emphasis given to scientific accuracy. That began to change in 1938, when John W. Campbell became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell’s ascension marks the beginning of the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction, and it was a direct refutation of the “Gernsbackian” style. Campbell published stories that were more realistic, more scientifically accurate, more focused on the deep exploration of character than the breathless description of super-science gizmos, and most importantly, better written. The Golden Age is the Golden Age because it was at this time that writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein began to emerge, redefining sci-fi for entire generations.

For fans in the ‘40s and ‘50s, this was science fiction: serialized works intended to be as realistic, and as character-driven, as possible. The 1955 Hugos were the first to give awards not only for Best Novel, but for Best Novelette and Best Short Story. Both those categories were won by stories published in Astounding Science Fiction, which itself won an award for Best Magazine. Previously, in 1953, the voters had given Best Magazine to both Astounding and H.L. Gold’s Galaxy Science Fiction in a tie; Galaxy also published that year’s novel winner, The Demolished Man. In 1955, however, all the votes went to Astounding. That may have helped Clifton pull off his upset victory…but when you look at just how much of an upset it was, you start to suspect that something else might have been going on.

When Jo Walton wrote about They’d Rather Be Right for her “Revisiting the Hugos” series, she admitted she had never read the story, but expressed her shock that it won over a host of much worthier contenders:

“1955, like 1953, did not release a list of nominees, so any guess as to what was in the voters’ minds is just a guess. The International Fantasy Award that year went to Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror For Observers. This is a brilliant undescribable book that would have been a solid Hugo winner – one of the best five books of any year….The runner up was Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity! How could they not have voted for Mission of Gravity — sometimes described as the only genuine hard science fiction novel?”

Writing for SFX in 2008, David Langford adds to the list of superior choices and provides two possible explanations for Clifton’s victory:

“1954 produced many other contenders: Poul Anderson’s debut novel Brain Wave, Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, James Blish’s Earthman, Come Home…Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast, Richard Matheson’s thrice-filmed I Am Legend and Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Strong competition.

“Some paranoid fans blamed the weird 1955 Hugo result on Scientology. A likelier reason is that Mark Clifton was very popular for the short stories – far better than that novel – he was then publishing in the flagship magazine Astounding SF.”

All well and good, but after reading the novel, I’m not so sure. For one thing, Clifton may have been a popular short story writer publishing in Astounding, but you could say the same of Asimov, Heinlein, and Blish. One of the novels cited by Langford, Blish’s Earthman, Come Home, was originally published in serial form in Astounding. Asimov published stories in Astounding in 1954, too. Clifton, for all that he may be an accomplished, perhaps even underrated, short story writer, can’t touch Blish or Asimov. Even if the ‘55 Hugo voters were purely zoned in with Campbell’s magazine, totally unfamiliar with authors published elsewhere, They’d Rather Be Right still seems like a bizarre choice.

And frankly, I don’t see the Scientology explanation as all that far-fetched. At the very least, it’s worth considering that Clifton’s story lines up very nicely along the lines of John Campbell’s personal ideology. They’d Rather Be Right is a book that centers around psionic powers and parapsychology, both of which were fascinating subjects to Campbell. The online “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” refers to Clifton’s treatment of psi abilities as “inflamed Campbellian propaganda,” which is to say that the book treats telepathy as plausible because Campbell believed telepathy was plausible. But to be honest, Clifton doesn’t take up very much time explaining why the world might contain a telepath — he essentially provides the “next stage in human evolution” rationale that, for example, the writers of X-Men provide when explaining Jean Grey. He spends much, much more time building up the plausibility of “Bossy,” the near-titular invention (the alternate title of Clifton’s book is The Forever Machine) that forms the novel’s core idea.

I still don’t entirely understand how the characters in They’d Rather Be Right take a government edict to create vehicles that can automatically avoid obstacles and interpret it as an edict to create a fully-functioning artificial intelligence whose function is to be the world’s greatest therapist, but that’s what they do. Only here’s the thing about Bossy’s therapy: it makes you immortal, and also provides you with psionic powers, and also makes you more intelligent than pretty much everyone else. The intelligence at least kind of makes sense, as it’s established that the therapy basically downloads Bossy’s brain into that of the patient. The psionics, once again, don’t merit an explanation; Clifton seems to take it as written than any person with enhanced intelligence and an expanded worldview must be telepathic. The immortality, though…oh, boy.

Okay, so according to the book, everybody is naturally immortal. One of our protagonists, Dr. Billings, explains that there’s a “life force” that provides the early momentum for cells to develop. “The cells renew themselves with a healthy vigor,” he says. “Like the amoeba, barring accident, they are immortal – that is, they have the potential of immortality through continued self renewal.”

He goes on: “They renew and multiply through the growth of the child to its maturity. But gradually the accumulation of mistakes, repressions, frustrations, disappointments, tensions of all kinds, overcome the momentum of the initial life force. The cells cannot keep up their renewal production as against all these depressants. They slow down, more and more, until finally some organ—or complex of organs—is too weakened to function. We call it disease, old age, death.”

So basically, cells have memory, and their memories of “tension” prevent them from naturally renewing themselves and achieving immortality. The characters even go out of their way to confirm that gravity itself is a source of tension, that the cells remember years upon years of being weighed down and thus fail to self-renew. Because Bossy’s instructions are “to find all tensions of any nature and remove them,” that means she makes cells forget that gravity is a thing. I guess.

In other words, Bossy’s therapy isn’t for your mind, it’s for your cells. You grow older and die because, essentially, the cells that make up your body are depressed.

Setting aside the reasons why none of this can possibly be true, it all sounds suspiciously familiar to me. Was there any other science fiction writer, publishing around the same time, who claimed that if you could get rid of your unconscious memories of tension or trauma, you would be able to return to your natural state, which is an immortal being with greater intelligence and superpowers? Clifton didn’t incorporate alien civilizations into his book, but his explanations of Bossy’s therapy are very similar to L. Ron Hubbard’s explanation of achieving the state of “Clear,” removing the engrams (traumatic memories) from the thetan (the brilliant immortal being with superpowers that thinks it’s a regular human) thus allowing it to reach its full potential. Some of the terminology is the same; Clifton and Hubbard both refer to a “life force,” and both make liberal use of the term “psychosomatic” in a serious scientific manner. Billings, the most well-known and respected scientist of Clifton’s world, works in the psychosomatic field.

The publication of Hubbard’s Dianetics was first announced in 1950 in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction (after being rejected by the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Psychiatry). The announcement was accompanied by a glowing endorsement from editor John Campbell, who called it “one of the most important articles ever published.” In fact, if not for Campbell, Dianetics probably would never have been completed, let alone published. It was Campbell who, in 1949, provided Hubbard with the means to pursue research that would eventually become Dianetics, allegedly providing Hubbard with test subjects gathered from science fiction fandom. Campbell also enlisted the aid of physician Joseph Winter, who was briefly a core contributor to Hubbard’s work (and later a major detractor). Campbell’s zeal seems somewhat counterintuitive, considering the fact that prior to Dianetics, Hubbard was a science fiction author of the Gernsbackian pulp variety, the very thing Campbell’s brand of sci-fi replaced. But when it came to the power of the mind over the body, Campbell was a believer. Given his proclivities and Hubbard’s background, it was perfectly logical for science fiction to be the first American cultural element to fall under the influence of Scientology.

I’m not saying Mark Clifton was a Scientologist. I have no idea if he was or not; there’s not a whole lot of information on him that’s readily available (he actually won an award for his obscurity in 2010). But imagine you’re a sci-fi writer in late 1953, early 1954. Astounding Science Fiction is THE magazine of the era, and you want John Campbell to publish your work. Meanwhile, it’s only three or four years out from Dianetics, Campbell has been openly championing Hubbard’s theories, Hubbard has just demonstrated his “e-meter,” and the Church of Scientology is only a couple of years away from being officially recognized as a religious organization. Asimov himself has said that Campbell’s belief in dianetics influenced the stories he bought, and that “A number of writers wrote pseudoscientific stuff to ensure sales to Campbell.” Why not write a thinly-veiled ode to the core concept behind Scientology? Why not dedicate large portions of your book to criticizing scientists and academics in their ivory towers, just like those elitists at the American Journal of Psychiatry? Why not conclude with a monologue from the main character that, among other things, talks about the similarities between science and faith? Why not try and sell They’d Rather Be Right, a book not only about ideas that line up nicely with Hubbard’s, but also about how those ideas are tragically misunderstood and unjustly condemned?

And if you’re John Campbell, a confirmed Hubbard zealot even if Clifton wasn’t, why not campaign hard for They’d Rather Be Right to win the Hugo? Why not push for a story that (at least indirectly) espouses your beliefs to be awarded science fiction’s new highest honor? It was the only cultural arena in which Campbell held a position of true power, and given the aforementioned trending of the 1955 Hugos toward Astounding, it would make perfect sense to believe that Campbell helped swing the vote in Clifton’s direction.

But even if he didn’t, if you’re a member of the sci-fi fandom of 1955, why not vote for They’d Rather Be Right? This is a time when several of your writer heroes are falling for Hubbard’s line. Aldous Huxley got audited. Theodore Sturgeon became an auditor. The legendary A. E. van Vogt went so far as to give up writing in order to head the Los Angeles branch of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation; when that fell through, he returned to writing, partially in order to fund his own center for dianetics. These men were authorial giants. Their names are still well-known among science fiction fans today, let alone in 1955. This was the very beginning of the Scientology boom, and sci-fi fans were the first to be swept up. If they could read the signs of Scientology between the lines of Clifton’s book, as I easily could, it’s not crazy to presume they would have been pleased with They’d Rather Be Right, and rewarded it accordingly.

In any event, with all due respect to David Langford, and to Mark Clifton himself, I think it far more likely that They’d Rather Be Right won the second Hugo Award because of its connections, however they were intended, to Scientology, than that it won because fans were familiar with Clifton’s short stories. Learning more about the fascinating history of science fiction turns out to be yet another glorious side effect of the Book of Hugo Project – and in this case, it was a good deal more fun than reading the book.

Come back next time for an analysis of Clifton’s characters, as well as at least an attempt at understanding the future in which they reside.


2 thoughts on “They’d Rather Be Right: Getting It Wrong

  1. Pingback: “What Have I Done?” by Mark Clifton – Classics of Science Fiction

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