Review: They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
I made a concerted effort to avoid any information about “They'd Rather be Right” by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley (Also known as the Forever Machine) and I am glad that I did. I did not know when I began this that it is considered by many to be the worst Hugo Award winning novel. This meant that I could come to the conclusion myself and while I have not read all of the Hugo Novels yet I can say that while it is certainly the worst I have read I actually enjoyed parts of this book.
There are a number of ways to come at this book and almost any of them it comes out looking badly. The most simply though is to ask first about the science. This is one of the major problems with this book. Telepathy in science fiction is generally given a free pass and I will do the same here, though calling it a science fiction idea is still a stretch. The cybernetic brain is also a bit of a stretch as it exists mostly to make philosophical points but that can be passed. Everything else is absurd though. It seems in this universe age is caused by people building up 'tensions' which are effectively all of your personal prejudices and evidently your cells becoming tired by gravity. This means that you can become immortal by being psychoanalyzed well enough though only a computer can do that. There are a few other silly leaps of science and all of them exist to drive the story without ever feeling like real technology.
The story itself is at its best disjointed. Originally published in four separate issues of astounding science fiction it feels like it. The first part of the story has you follow the life of a young telepath who no one understands and adopts a puppy to keep happy. You then have that boy getting older and working with a brain specialist to create a machine to emulate the human brain. This then goes into a section of the story where they are hiding from the world who is afraid of that brain and finally to a section in which a industrialist helps them to protect the cybernetic brain as it psychoanalyzes a 68 year old woman who becomes effectively 21 years old. All of these feel like an excuse for the book to preach ideas which at times are interesting but most of the time are not.
That is the real failing of this book. It wants more than anything to be profound and it simply is not. There are a few interesting ideas. Such as the question whether you would give up your beliefs if it made you immortal, but it doesn't really examine what that means.
In the end this is not a great science fiction book, but if you focus on what it does right rather than what it does wrong there are a lot of interesting points. The main one is just how little we know about the universe and each other and how much different things might be if we knew a bit more and that worth considering.