They’d Rather Be Right

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m interested in the way works that click at one point in time lose their punch a decade or two later (as I discussed here and here). Case in point, the second-ever Hugo winner for Best Novel, THEY’D RATHER BE RIGHT by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley.
First, the backstory: Joe, a telepath, has mentally manipulated a group of researchers into creating Bossy, the world’s first artificial intelligence. Public opinion has come out against advanced science in the best tradition of torch-wielding mobs and Joe and the two chief scientists hide out with Bossy on skid row. Here Joe uses Bossy to perform psychotherapy on an aging ex-hooker. While normal psychoanalysis can ease the strain mental that puts stress on our body, Bossy can go into the cells and the mind, erasing so much stress you become immortal (and telepathic). The only requirement is that you be open-minded enough to accept there are no fixed truths; as an example, Joe points out at the end that what seems absolute to science in one century may turn out to be false in the next. Bossy is offered up to the world——do you have the imagination to be transformed?
I’m inclined to classify this story as theme-based: It starts with our heroes on the run because of the stupidity of the public (I’ll come back to this in a couple of paragraphs), and ends by explaining how our own preconceptions are all that stands between us and eternity. which explains why the characters are pretty colorless. I wouldn’t give it a Hugo myself, but I can see why it might have had much more punch 60 years ago (with the obvious caveat I’m not in the Hugo voters’ heads so this is only a guess).
For one thing, psychotherapy had a real cult status back then; as Dan Wakefield observes in New York in the Fifties, anyone with pretensions to being an intellectual was in analysis. Immortality through psychotherapy probably sounded a lot more plausible.
For another, the big challenges in the story are the crushing pressure to conform and the power of PR to shape people’s attitudes, both big pop-culture issues back in the time. They still are, of course, but they were fresher issues then, summed up in books about how advertising controls us (The Hidden Persuaders) and how Americans were becoming more conformist (The Lonely Crowd).
What makes it different from the way those topics are usually treated today is the definite air of contempt for the sheeple. And that the solution is not to encourage independent thinking but to use Public Relations to get them thinking the right way (which, like the sheeple they are, they do). It makes me wonder if the authors were Rand fans——it reminds me a lot of the attitude toward the madness of crowd expressed in Rand’s script for The Fountainhead.
A bigger weakness is the whole “no absolute truth” angle. Joe confines this to science, which is reasonable up to a point … but only to a point. Our concept of how Earth works may change, but we can definitely rule out the flat earth and (from a scientific standpoint) a literal interpretation of Genesis. Hydrogen has one electron. Does believing that disbar me?
And what about non-scientific issues? Would someone who believes fascism (or communism or any other form of totalitarianism) cannot be acceptable be able to make the transition? If most Americans are such sheeple, doesn’t that imply almost nobody has fixed opinions? Exploring those questions would have interested me a lot more.
Whatever made it work 60 years ago, I don’t think it’s there any more. Still, they did win a Hugo back then … how many of us will ever manage that?

1 Comment

Filed under Politics, Reading

One response to “They’d Rather Be Right

  1. Pingback: The flip side of Scalzi | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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