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The Forever Machine (They'd Rather Be Right)
by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 14, 2010

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In times past I would not have finished reading this book, because other than for a few intriguing core ideas it is poorly written, with next to no character development or consistent internal logic. But I've promised myself that I would review all of the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novels, so I had to persevere. It is hard for me to imagine that any of the other books ahead of me (that I haven't already read) could be worse than this one. I have been reading SF as a serious avocation since 1967, when I was a senior in high school. I became aware of the Hugo awards shortly thereafter, but right now I can't recall when I first heard or read about this book, it's possible it wasn't until I created this site in 2000 and compiled the Hugo/Nebula pages. It has appeared on several critics lists of "worst novel to have won a Hugo," and it has not been in print for very long in any of its editions.

It was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction under the title "They'd Rather Be Right" (August-November 1954), and first appeared in book form in 1957, supposedly heavily edited from the original. I'd say they didn't edit it enough, or rather they should have had someone else rewrite it. It's hard to believe it actually appeared in hardcover, albeit from the small-press publisher, Gnome Press. Perusing their releases at that link I'd venture a guess this was the worst book they ever published too. The copy I have is the one pictured above, a paperback from the Galaxy Novel series. Again, checking that link, this book seems to be out of place there as well. There will be spoilers in this review, but don't worry about it. It is necessary to reveal the plot to explain why it is not a good book, and I am definitely not recommending anyone else suffer through reading it.

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The premise of The Forever Machine that the U.S. government has authorized a project to create a cybernetic system to aid military defense. The intent is to have a machine that can analyze all pertinent data and formulate solutions to various threats, and another portion of the project is to have such a system pilot drone aircraft. Certainly a concept that is still relevant to this day, if only the execution of the narrative wasn't so old fashioned. Throughout the book, the dialogue reads like a bad B-movie from the '40s or '50s. Most of the characters are easily identifiable as "token scientist," "token politician," "token benevolent industrialist," etc. Everyone else is just "background players," reminiscent of all those crowd scenes in a Frank Capra film. The research and development takes place at the fictional East coast Hoxworth University. Progress is slow and uneventful, then inexplicably successful, and none of the scientists realize the factor behind the change. Joe Carter, a student volunteer, is a telepath with a hidden agenda. He not only has the ability to read minds, he can also influence the thoughts of others. It is his influence that gets all of the researchers to work in harmony to perfect the machine, which they refer to as "Bossy" due to its resemblance to the head of a cow.

The beginning of the novel has Carter and the two major researchers, Professors Hoskins and Billings, on the run as fugitives. There is next to no explanation as to why and how their project got to that point. There is vague reference to the fact that the military thinks they have essentially developed a doomsday weapon, it has supposedly received a lot of press attention and thus panic from the general public, so the three men have stolen Bossy and gone into hiding. Bossy has been disassembled and shipped anonymously to San Francisco. The three men meet up there again, where Carter has provided a secure location to reassemble the machine and conduct further experiments. Another weakness of the novel is there is no explanation as to how Bossy came to be something completely different than was intended. I suppose we are to assume it was Carter who directed the research to get it to that point, because as it turns out Bossy becomes a "psychosomatic therapy" device, and one of the by-products of this therapy is the creation of telepathic ability. Joe Carter could have been an interesting character if developed properly, but all we ever find out about him is that he is lonely due to him never encountering another telepath. In typical B-movie fashion, Joe falls in love with Mabel, an older woman who is the subject of their first therapy session, and who miraculously becomes youthful again under the process. If immortality was also part of Carter's intent for the machine (and yes, it is clearly stated several times to be the case), then why does he not also undergo the therapy? Yes, Mabel is also now telepathic, but will he continue to age while she remains youthful thanks to Bossy? Is he fearful that Bossy would remove his telepathic ability? Another explanation missing.

The few interesting ideas are not introduced until at least the halfway point, and by that time it didn't really matter. None of the characters were developed enough for me to care what happened to them, nor do I think the writers were capable of making Bossy's functions sensible. It does seem to be the type of story that was commissioned from an idea generated by Astounding editor John W. Campbell, and I wonder why it wasn't written by L. Ron Hubbard. Astounding had already introduced "dianetics" to the world, and while I have not read Hubbard's book on the subject, the few things I have read about Scientology leads me to believe his ideas may have influenced the development of this novel. Psychiatry is ridiculed several times throughout, and the notion is presented that the only ones who can benefit from Bossy's "therapy" are those willing to abandon pre-conceived notions of reality. Even one of the machine's creators is not able to think in the new "multi-value" way, and thus is not transformed during his session.

The difference between "single-value" and "multi-value" ways of thinking is one of the few good ideas the book expressed. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 15, when Bossy answers the question of "What is multi-valued physics?"

"Any culture dies in its own wastes. All past civilizations have died because of self-imposed boundaries beyond which they did not permit themselves to go. To place the single value on a fact of 'it either exists or it does not' is likewise to set up such a barrier as to confine present-day science in it's own wastes...There is the concept of infinity. There is also the concept that energy is indestructible. These two concepts do not reconcile in single-valued physics. To reconcile them, I had to come to multi-valued physics—where a fact may be irrevocably true in one context of reality, partially true in varying degrees in many, and not true at all in some... The most puzzling of all contradictory concepts given me is the human will to set up such arbitrary limits to his comprehension."

Thus we see that Bossy is the only character in the book that makes any sense. Everything and everyone else is just stage-dressing for the "concept." While ideas are what all good science fiction should be about, an idea alone will not make a good novel without believable and sympathetic characters to implement that concept. It would also have helped if either of the authors (or an editor) had done some vocabulary research, especially considering how often semantics is mentioned as an important element in understanding. Several times the word "somatic" was used to refer to Carter's telepathic probings of others' minds, and it seems apparent they thought the word meant "of the mind," but it actually means "of the body." I think there is another instance of where they thought they had coined a new word, "esperance," (relating to ESP or espers, those who exhibit the talent), but that is actually an archaic word meaning "hope."

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As when I recently reviewed Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, I've done a search for other novels published in 1954, and any one of the following should have easily won the Hugo that year: Brain Wave by Poul Anderson, The Star Beast by Robert A. Heinlein, The Stars Are Ours by Andre Norton, Search the Sky by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, or A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn. I have not read Algis Budrys' False Night, but based on his other work I'd have to say it would have to be better than TFM, and if the Hugo voters had been inclined to consider fantasy at that time, the first two volumes of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings were also originally published in '54. Sam Jordinson, a U.K. critic, has stated that "They'd Rather Be Right won a Hugo award by public vote. It raises serious questions about the value of a universal franchise."


Related Links:
Mark Clifton's page at fantasticfiction.com
Wikipedia article on this book, with links to other reviews


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Mark Clifton
Frank Riley

Serialized in Astounding - 1954
Revised Book - 1957


Out of Print. Check amazon.com for a used copy.

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