They’d Rather Be Right: Individuals

Source: Wikipedia

As previously discussed, the question of why Mark Clifton’s They’d Rather Be Right won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955 is one that has a few different answers depending on how you look at it – though I believe the connection between editor John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard’s pseudoscientific/quasi-religious doctrine of Scientology to be the most likely culprit. A somewhat more straightforward question, however, is why science fiction fans are so dumbfounded by its victory in the first place.

They’d Rather Be Right is not a good book. Part of the reason is simply that it’s not terribly well-written, but more than that, the problem with this novel lies in its focus. Clifton’s priority (at least initially) seems to have been that the reader understand the details behind Bossy, the immortality-granting artificial intelligence, and that both Bossy’s creation and how she works are as firmly-grounded as possible in something that at least sounds kind of like science. This makes sense considering Campbell’s well-known insistence on realism, and it makes even more sense if Clifton was indeed pandering to Campbell’s obsession with parapsychology. Unfortunately, not only does this emphasis on his “scientific” idea make the early part of the book extremely boring (“Hide, Hide, Witch,” one of the two short stories that preceded They’d Rather Be Right and were rightfully folded in with the novel in my version, is an almost unbearable slog of technical detail) but it also comes at the expense of Clifton’s characters. The world of They’d Rather Be Right is populated almost exclusively by boring people, and the only ones who experience any degree of change or growth do so by being fundamentally altered by the Forever Machine itself.

The two prequel short stories revolve around two characters: Joe Carter, the book’s genius telepath protagonist, and Dr. Billings, one of the nation’s most respected scientists (though his field, of course, is psychosomatics). The first story, “Crazy Joey,” introduces us to Joe Carter as a child, struggling to hide his burgeoning psychic powers from his parents and doctors. This is actually one of the most interesting parts of the story, as Joe faces off with Dr. Martin, who suspects him of being telepathic and asks him to guess the shapes printed on a series of cards. At first, Joe deliberately guesses incorrectly every time in order to hide his abilities. When he reads Martin’s mind and finds that by all rights, he should be getting at least one out of five cards right, he starts calling out the right answers once every five cards, which tips Martin off even more. Martin is eventually able to trick Joe into firmly demonstrating that he can read minds, but keeps the information secret except to pass it on to Dr. Billings. But the most interesting part is when Martin explains to Joe the idea of patterns.

“In trying to avoid a pattern, Joey, you made one. Just as soon as I realized you were setting up an usual pattern, you immediately changed it. Every time. But that, too, is a pattern.” And then he asked, quite dryly, “Or am I talking over your head?”

“Yes, sir,” Joey said. “I guess you are.” But he had learned. The whole concept of patterned response as against random response leapt from Martin’s mind into his.

Shortly thereafter, Martin comments, “You’re quite perfect at it, aren’t you… You go beyond the words to the actual thought image itself.” These ideas are never mentioned again, but they are the closest we ever come to an explanation of why Joe Carter is almost never wrong about anything. If he can indeed take not only words and images from the minds of others, but in fact, learn entire concepts after reading the mind of someone who understands them, one would imagine the accelerated learning curve to be tremendous. Again, it’s hardly a point of emphasis, but it can be read in a way that explains Joe’s off-the-charts intelligence and understanding of the way pretty much everything in the world works. So at least there’s an explanation for why Joe is, quite literally, a super-genius. Sadly, that explanation doesn’t change the fact that people who are never wrong and never make mistakes are incredibly boring protagonists.

One of the reasons They’d Rather Be Right is such a ponderous read is the sheer number of occasions of Joey correctly predicting the course of events and telling everyone about it, correctly predicting the course of events but not telling anyone about it – and saying something along the lines of “Yes, I knew this would happen, and here’s why” after the fact – or simply psi-splaining human nature to those unfortunate humans in his vicinity who happen to not be telepaths. Clifton goes all-in on this last one late in the book, when Joe explains why Bossy works on some people and not on others via a lengthy and complicated metaphor involving trees. I would quote it, but it’s basically just a longer way of saying that clinging to preconceived notions about the world effects both a person’s and a society’s ability to change. The fact that Joe seems to be the only person who has figured this out – thanks to his telepathy – is presented as an indicator of his genius, but is really more of a commentary on the rest of humanity.

Aside from Joe himself, there are only three main characters in the book that Clifton has any respect for. One is the wealthy industrialist Howard Kennedy, who becomes Bossy’s benefactor after her initial rejection by the public and the government. Kennedy is the only non-telepath in the story who operates on a higher, more evolved plane of thinking. How do we know this? Because he consistently understands and agrees with Joe. He is always the first to comprehend Joe’s slog of metaphors, typically making a vague statement to that effect before sitting back and letting Joe continue explaining to the rest of the mere humans. He is also presented almost uniformly in terms of the highest admiration; he is a self-made man, a shrewd master of business tactics, the only person in the country who dares to openly defy the government. In short, according to Clifton, he is the only kind of human worthy of praise, the rugged individualist who has risen above the teeming chaos of the masses, but has chosen to avoid the ivory tower, and in the process, made an enemy of the government.

The other two characters Clifton sees fit to present in a positive light – sort of – are the two characters successfully transformed by Bossy. The idea that his psionic gifts are the driving factor behind Joe’s supreme knowledge is supported when his friends Mabel and Carney undergo Bossy’s process and come out the other side not only young and healthy, but with telepathic abilities of their own. The two newly-immortalized mind-readers almost immediately get on Joe’s level when it comes to understanding how humanity works — in other words, they become boring, despite the fact that they had been two of the most interesting members of the cast to that point. The most frustrating thing about the book is how quickly and thoroughly Mabel and Carney are transformed, not in terms of them regaining their youth, but it terms of the role they play in the story. Carney is granted the given name of Jeff, and almost exclusively referred to as such after he emerges from Bossy, and that’s appropriate considering that he basically becomes a new character, a prankish sidekick to Joe as opposed to his previous characterization of a cautious, streetwise skeptic. One could explain this change by saying that Jeff has (a) seen the light, so to speak, and accepted the impossible as possible, and (b) reverted to his previous ways as a former professional con man. But I’m not sure what could explain, or justify, the changes in Mabel.

I’m really trying not to come down too hard on the sexism in these early books, because yes, I do understand that this was still the 1950s and I shouldn’t expect these authors to portray women in anything resembling a progressive way. That said…this one is bad. And it’s made worse by the fact that when we first meet her, Mabel is a cool character, a former high-class prostitute who has gotten old and fat and ugly, but who nonetheless absolutely rules her streets by right of riches as a sort of vague crime queen. That description might involve a bit of reading between the lines, but the fact is that Mabel commands respect. When she first meets Dr. Billings, that luminary of the academic world, he immediately recognizes her as being a person of importance, someone to whom you don’t talk down. He gives her that respect at an intuitive level, partially because of how much she’s helping him, but mostly because he understands her worth.

And then she gets a Bossy treatment, becoming young and beautiful again. At which point, not only does she fall immediately into Joe Carter’s arms, because of course she does, but she also ceases to express any character traits whatsoever aside from being beautiful and being a bit out of her depth and overwhelmed by her telepathy. Again, if you wanted to, you could explain some of these things away within the context of the story; Joe and Mabel are, for a brief period, the only telepaths on the planet, and they had already shown hints of a slightly ribald friendship before Mabel’s transformation, so sure, hook them up, I suppose, even though their relationship has no impact on anything going forward. But there are other, more disquieting elements in how Clifton portrays Young Mabel, and indeed, women in general. There’s the way Mabel moves aside to make room for Jeff as Joe’s best friend, in a manner that, the book tells us, indicates she knows her place:

“Mabel was wise. Even before she had gone into Bossy, she knew that no woman could fill all of a man’s life, that her relationship to him was compartmentalized, that the woman who tries to monopolize both love and companionship usually winds up with neither. She did not pretend to fill more than a woman’s place in Joe’s life.”

You can agree with the general sentiment that it’s a bad idea to try and monopolize someone, which I do, but that’s a pretty gross, 1950s way of putting it, particularly since the implication is that only a woman would ever try to do that. Clifton tends toward these off-putting descriptions of women’s behavior throughout the book. When Mabel has a court hearing shortly after her transformation, the bailiff has to turn away a horde of women whose husbands want them to come home young again. During Carney’s televised transformation, his just-barely-obscured nakedness is played up “for that crucial moment necessary in catering to psychotically frustrated womanhood.” And when the public learns that eternal youth is officially on the table and goes “mad with joy,” the government follows suit in a move that Clifton describes thusly: “And as soon as Mom showed her approval, the politicians, even the most cautious and woman-dominated, rushed to acclaim the genius which had brought this boon to man.”

It’s not only women who get this generalized treatment from Clifton, though they are certainly picked on with the most viciousness. They’d Rather Be Right spends an inordinate amount of time on the subject of the public reaction, to the point where it often overwhelms everything else. The title “Hide, Hide, Witch,” is a direct reference to the initial riotous anger of the masses toward the Bossy project, and indeed, the title of the entire novel is a reference to the perceived nature of the public, who would rather be right about something than accept beneficial new possibilities. Their small-minded willingness to be herded like cattle is given its personification in the form of Steve Flynn, Howard Kennedy’s PR man, who actually emerges as the most dynamic character in the whole damn story because of his energy and confidence. Flynn is no brain, but he comes off as both smart and effective because of how thoroughly he understands the ways in which the public can be manipulated. The decision to make him unambiguously “one of the good guys” comes across as strangely misanthropic.

This is fitting, because there’s a strong misanthropic theme running throughout the book, and it only gets stronger as the scientific focus changes from engineering to psychology and sociology (describing the way groups of people work in the same blundering way it described the creation of Bossy). Clifton sympathizes with neither the masses at large nor the academics in their ivory towers (as he himself puts it, multiple times). The public is portrayed as fundamentally fickle, hailing Bossy as a savior one moment and sharpening their pitchforks the next. The academics Billings and Hoskins, Joe’s partners in creating Bossy, are elitist and out-of-touch, wrapped up in their own superiority. At one point, Billings tries to undergo Bossy’s therapy/immortality process, but it doesn’t work on him because he’s unable to let go of his own self-importance. And both sides of this misanthropy tie back to Joe. He is often the only person able to predict how the public will respond to various turns of events, and knows they must be carefully driven (with the tireless help of Flynn) toward acceptance of what’s best for them. But Joe also knows better than Billings and Hoskins, who continue for far too long in their belief that their ideas, not Joe’s, are the scientific force behind Bossy’s existence, and that they understand the Bossy process better than Joe does. That they are mistaken in this is something the book never once wavers on.

It’s important to recognize that Clifton doesn’t hate the writhing, faceless public of some futuristic society in which humanity has been irrevocably changed by, I don’t know, contact with an alien culture, or something. Nor does he hate the academics of a world taken over by a technocratic demagogue or an advanced artificial intelligence. Clifton hates the people of his own society. He pays lip service to the idea that this is all taking place in the near future and throws the reader a few bones about a government that’s closer to dictatorship than democracy, but I think that stuff is only there to provide a narrative framework for Bossy’s construction.  Or maybe Clifton got bored with world-building his future society, which certainly has more of a presence in “Crazy Joey” and “Hide, Hide, Witch” than it does in the book proper. Clifton may have dropped it in order to focus on Bossy and its implications, perhaps to curry favor with John Campbell. Whatever the reason, the world of They’d Rather Be Right is, for all intents and purposes, the real world. And Clifton wants the people of the real world to know that they suck, and that they should be made better.

I know that sounds harsh, and I’m probably not giving the author enough credit, but that’s how it reads to me. I think people are so surprised that this book won a Hugo award because it’s barely science fiction at all. Sure, it has a machine that makes people into telepathic immortals, but the painstaking explanations for how that machine works are simultaneously totally impenetrable and infuriatingly easy. Joe and his ubermench posse walk around saying, “Guys, don’t you get it, anyone can be an ageless magic person, you just have to change from single-value thinking to multi-value thinking! And we will never, ever explain what that means!” It’s the most frustrating thing about the entire book, and unfortunately, also the best way to sum the entire book up. All you need to attain psychic powers and everlasting life is super-advanced therapy, which works because of sciency-sounding terminology that won’t show up on a Google search, but that the text refuses to define. Since there’s no way the reader could possibly understand how or why Bossy works, Clifton is asking us to take his only science fiction element on faith. But because he’s still trying to pretend everything is grounded in science, he’s also making miracles mundane. The entire book is a contradiction, and I’m not sure Clifton knows that.

“There is not now, there never has been any real issue between science and faith. Both strive for the same identical goal; both seek comprehension; both wish to benefit man that he live happier, healthier, more harmoniously with himself and with his neighbors. Man seeks to comprehend, to understand the forces which govern his life. The sometimes apparently different paths taken by science and faith are of no consequence in comparison with man’s yearning to know.”

Well, that’s a hell of a statement. It comes at the very end of the book, when Joe Carter, at long last, addresses the people on the subject of Bossy. Joe explains that Bossy is science, not magic, that Bossy is a tool, not a savior, and that Bossy will only work if you are willing to evolve, she will not evolve you herself. Which is all well and good, except for the fact that They’d Rather Be Right isn’t really about science vs. magic, or about tools vs. saviors. It’s about the genius individuals, like Joe, or the hard-working individuals, like Howard Kennedy, vs. the academics and the masses. Clifton doesn’t need to come on either side of the science/faith divide or the elitist/commoner divide, because the side he’s actually championing is the side of individualism. You make Bossy work. You evolve your own thinking. How you do it doesn’t matter; what matters is that nobody else will do it for you.

Which is fine, if you’re into that kind of thing (I, personally, am not). But in the end, it’s pretty clear why a book with as many problems as this one doesn’t resonate with today’s sci-fi fans. Maybe in 1955, when the genre was still in the throes of Golden Age masculinity and the culture at large was still in the throes of the Red Scare, Clifton’s overall message carried more weight. But looking back, when you take a book that seems way more interested in being a venomous social critique than being science fiction, and then end it by writing off the one major science fiction element with what amounts to “the answer was in you all along”… well, I guess what you get is the worst Hugo winner of all time.

That’s it for They’d Rather Be Right. I know the number of posts on these books are getting shorter (and the posts themselves are getting longer) but that’s about all I have to say on this one. Fortunately, things are about to get a whole lot more interesting, because Robert Goddamn Heinlein’s first Hugo winner (but definitely not his last) is on deck. Come back for the sci-fi champeen of 1956, Double Star!


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