More Plus Infinity: They’d Rather Be Right is Mostly Wrong

If More Plus Infinity is my quest to climb the shining hill of science fiction, then the second ever Hugo Award-winning best novel in 1955, They’d Rather Be Right, is the first trial in my still nascent ascent. It wasn’t nearly as bad I had expected – it is sometimes called the ‘worst winner ever’. It also wasn’t worth the read.

I had trouble finding this book*. It hasn’t been reprinted endlessly like so many other Hugo Award winners. It isn’t heralded as a classic. In fact, it is lauded for nothing of note beyond its status as having won an award. It won’t be the only Hugo winner to have fizzled and faded, but it is one of my first tastes of the sheer range of quality that a category born of human democracy might possess.

Alas, I persevered and here we are.

They’d Rather Be Right, sometimes known as The Forever Machine, was first published in a serial format for Astounding Science-Fiction, and written by the pair of Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. Neither of these authors produced anything else that I might ever read, so this is their one and only intersection with my timeline. I won’t shed any tears.

The story is a product of its time in ways that make it almost comically similar to The Demolished Man. There’s a lot of concern and worry over psychology, and over mankind’s ability to understand himself and his own psyche so totally as to unlock hitherto unknown abilities. It isn’t quite the meme of “unlocking the other 90% of your brain”, but it gets close.

The main character is Joe, a telepath born to parents of modest means who don’t get his affliction. Joe’s father worked as the janitor for a local university, and fearful of his son’s mental condition, he took a young Joe to see one of the professors of the school. This is where one of the novel’s major theme’s begins: institutional myopia.

I passed a bunch of the little brats on the way home tonight. ‘There goes Crazy Joey’s father,’ one of them said. I won’t stand for it. Either Joey learns to stand up, or—” “Or what, Bob?” His mother’s voice held defiance and fear.


The professor’s assistant pieces together Joe’s ability almost immediately. He had been looking for telepathy all along. His boss, the established and respected psychologist, doesn’t subscribe to such pseudosciences: his science is only that which has been tried, tested, and fits into the current thinking on things. Later the novel, the term ‘cookbook scientist’ is used to describe a different character, but that point of view is founded even earlier in the introductory chapters.

Martin shoved the paper away from him. Must warn that student. His entire train of thought was a violation of orthodox psychology. Ames would crucify the boy if he ever saw this paper. Did he dare warn the boy? Students show so little caution or ethics.

After these initial scenes, we cut to the modern date of the mid-1950’s where yet another professor is being tasked by the United State’s government to create a machine which can predict missiles ahead of impact and respond faster than any human pilot can respond. The project had been a failure with every scientist they took it to, so they finally settled on bringing it to a psychologist since it meant a level of intelligence that would warrant an almost artificial intelligence.

Or something like that. An older Joe gets wrapped into things because the lead of this new government project had an inkling of his abilities, and knew that if her were to be able to sense something beyond normal human sensing he’d need a telepath.

“In other words,” Billings said slowly, “they want a servomechanism designed which can foresee the future, and work out a pattern of mechanical operation which will cope with that future at the time it becomes present.” He realized his voice showed his incredulity, and that it would displease Rogan. It did.

If I have lost you yet, the story then progresses to the creation of Bossy, a machine named after a cow due its cow-like shape. Using his abilities to influence other’s, Joe helps the entire scientific community to look past their individual prejudices and doubts, and instead contribute to the project. Bossy is the most complicated machine ever made, but the knowledge to make it already exists. The problem is the infighting and bickering among learn’d individuals who would rather cling to their own worldview than contribute to anyone else’s. It is a major theme of the novel, and the authors hammer it home at every turn. Mankind is smart, but holds itself back by clinging to truths that fit only into each individual’s framework.

Only, it turns out that Bossy is a machine that can re-educated each cell of the human body, thus rejuvenating the individual into eternal youth and beauty, and providing them access to hidden telepathic powers. There is a catch: Bossy only imparts immortality to the outliers of society who see civilization for the charade that it is. Holding on to dearly to any convictions prevents Bossy from working.

“The patient must be willing to be relieved of all tensions,” Joe said. “Yes,” Billings agreed. “A firm belief in anything acts as a tension, in that it disallows the opposite of that belief. The admission ticket to immortality is the willingness to divorce oneself from all frameworks of preconception and prejudice.” “Would that be so difficult?” Hoskins asked, with a challenge in his voice. “I think so,” Joe said quietly. “I think, gentlemen, you will find that they’d rather be right—and die.”

Before Bossy is finished, a wave of public opinion turns against the project. People are afraid that Bossy will replace workers or render jobs obsolete. The whole of the United States begins to turn against anything that would upset their status quo, and the government turns on the project as well. Joe and the two lead scientists go into hiding to complete the project, and the rest of the novel turns into an entanglement of finger waggling at the ineptitude of the masses and a unthrilling thriller of who will control Bossy forever.

There are a few elements of the modern day scattered throughout the novel’s ideas. Machines replacing people, check. A machine that can do everything and answer any question? Sounds remarkably like the Internet. In fact, when it is decided that no one will control Bossy and everyone will have access, They’d Rather Be Right comes close to the notions that new technology should be made accessible and open source for the masses to use as they see fit.

“Apply this everywhere in man’s knowledge. The vast majority of what he thinks is knowledge is pure assumption—the forcing and pounding of unlike pieces together to make them fit.”

A lot of it doesn’t work though. The writing isn’t bad, but dear god did this book ramble, often about the same things. I get it: humanity is a mixed tribe of people warring, fighting, and debating. We could be so much better if we just stepped outside our own shoes. It’s so cliche as to be boring.

The science also doesn’t hold up. A machine that does everything? They even predict the internet by linking every Bossy up in a way so that they can machine learn as a network. How do they explain that working? Harmonics. Yes, this is a musical internet, stored on tape and plastic, traversing the globe by sound alone.

In conclusion, let me leave you with a short chapter toward the end of the novel. This chapter introduces no new characters and contains no old ones. It’s entire purpose seems to be reflecting on the novel’s central themes if discord between people of unlike social status. In other words, it does a better job of summing up the entire novel than I could ever do, and is really the only thing you should bother reading if you want to get the “point” of what Mark Clifton and Frank Riley were trying to convey:

A car, driven by a scholarly old gentleman, had just pulled past the pumps of the service station and over to the door of the garage at one side. The motor was missing, would the mechanic please look into it? The mechanic lifted the hood, and saw that one of the wires from the distributor cap had worked loose. Well of all the stupid old goats. Naturally that spark plug wouldn’t fire without any juice getting to it! He curbed the impulse to flare up in disgust at the helplessness of drivers in general. All the guy had to do was lift the hood and look! But that was human beings for you. Ninety-five per cent of them wouldn’t know a piston ring from a fan belt. If it weren’t for the five per cent of guys like himself, guys who knew what made motors tick, the whole civilization would come to a stop. No matter how mechanized things got, it still boiled down to five per cent of the people carrying the other ninety-five per cent on their backs! Interplayed with his thoughts was the great excitement in the old man’s mind. He was on his way up to the University with an unmistakable connecting link between the Tu’un and the Sung Dynasty in Chinese Art. He was filled with elation at this long sought discovery. He could hardly contain his impatience at the delay, but his visit would be a long one and last far into the night; a night of exhilarating discussion. And if that pesky motor got worse, he might be left afoot. The mechanic was still bent over the frame of the car, fiddling with wires. The old gentleman tasted the triumph of saying to the mechanic, “I have just discovered the connecting link between—” The awe which would fill the man’s face! Then realization. The mechanic probably wouldn’t even recognize a Ming piece, much less a Tu’un! Like the simple peasants of China, beasts of toil and burden, living only to sleep, to eat, to procreate their own misery. It was only about five per cent of mankind which carried the lamp of knowledge and kept it glowing! Only five per cent to carry the other ninety-five per cent on their backs. He unconsciously straightened his back, as if to shift the load, make it easier to bear.

*If you are at all curious, I found They’d Rather Be Right in a collection of science fiction short stories on Amazon.


1 thought on “More Plus Infinity: They’d Rather Be Right is Mostly Wrong”

Comments are closed.