Sometime in 1981, on my way to reading all of the Hugo Award winning novels published up to that point in time, I found the Starblaze Editions illustrated reissue of They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. I had, by then, read several Hugo winners; unable to find copies of some of the earliest, I was not going down the list in strict order. They’d Rather Be Right (alternatively titled The Forever Machine) was the second novel to win the Hugo, and was one of those that took a while for me to find. My admittedly vague recollection of reading the book was one of surprise that it had won the award, especially on the heels of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. Still, I don’t recall actually disliking the book, and so I was surprised recently, while browsing reviews of They’d Rather Be Right on Goodreads, to discover that it draws a lot of rather venomous criticism. It’s widely held to be the worst novel to ever win the Hugo Award.
Rereading it, I find it difficult to argue the point. It’s certainly the weakest novel to win the award; it truly does not hold its own against either its predecessor, or the novels that followed. While full of interesting – if now somewhat dated – ideas, it does not blend them smoothly into the story as it unfolds. Instead, the authors stop frequently to lay things out to the reader, sometimes through unspoken thoughts of the characters, but all too often as simply narrative exposition that does little to advance the story. It also starts out awkwardly. Reading this novel felt like sitting down in a theater to watch a movie twenty minutes after the start of the film. Much had already happened before the first chapter began, and none of it was adequately explained in the setup. There had been a great public outcry against the mechanical mind at the heart of the tale, leading to the persecution of those responsible for its invention, but the exact reason for the outcry and the incident that set it off is never clearly explained.
The characters are often mere sketches, set up to serve a particular role, and developed no further. In a few cases, characters are almost painful caricatures of people in particular professions; military and law enforcement professionals are treated especially unkindly. However the characters are handled, they offer little that engaged me as a reader. I get the feeling I’m not supposed to care about them so much as just listen to them as they convey the ideas on which the story rests. The tendency to caricature, unfortunately, extends to the social commentary that seems a central (and rather blunt) theme in this novel. That leads to scenes and passages that play like an early Peter Sellers comedy gone wrong. The impression that comes across is that the authors were looking down their noses at society, the one around them in the mid-1950’s, as they wrote the book. It comes across, at best, as naïvely elitist.
And that observation leads to one regarding a very significant difference between this book and the only other Hugo winner at that time, a difference that leads some modern-day readers to be dismissive of the book when they review it. The Demolished Man was clearly set in the future, and Bester made an effort to imagine how that future would look, feel, and sound. They’d Rather Be Right is supposed to be in the future, but that holds only if everything about the 1950s carried through to whatever vaguely defined future the authors had in mind. As a result, while The Demolished Man remains fresh and interesting today, They’d Rather Be Right comes across as a period piece. If you’ve ever read an anthology of early-to mid-1950s short sci-fi stories, you’ll recognize the feel of this book; it hasn’t aged well. I point this out merely as an observation, one that is true of many novels from any given decade. Saying a book falls short because of this is more than a little unfair. This book is flawed in ways that have nothing to do with when it was written, and that provides plenty of legitimate grist for the critical mill.
Given the book’s numerous problems (and I’m by no means alone in pointing them out) it’s no surprise that so many people are puzzled by the fact that this book won the Hugo Award. I’ve seen plenty of explanations, everything from the thought that the ideas driving the story were outstanding for their time, to conspiracy theories involving voter fraud. I think a closer look at the times during which the book was written may provide a better explanation. They’d Rather Be Right was published on the heels of the McCarthy Era and the Second Red Scare. In many ways, the society the authors describe as a setting for their story reflects the fears many intelligent people had during that episode. “Opinion control” is frequently invoked to describe an underlying cause for the troubles experienced by the society described in the novel. Characters in the book fear Soviet-style tattling by neighbors and co-workers. Even a casual examination of McCarthyism reveals that fears of such things were anything but groundless. Then as now, many, if not most, science fiction fans were wide open to new ideas, new ways of thinking and doing, and these were traits viewed with suspicion by the anti-Communist witch hunters of those days. I’ve met fans from that era over the years, and several have confessed they spent much of the Fifties looking over their shoulders and watching what they said in public. It was not, by all accounts, a happy time to have an active mind and imagination. So it isn’t much of a stretch to see They’d Rather Be Right as a response to the hysteria and paranoia of the time, and in fact, it almost certainly was a response of sorts. If that’s so, winning the award is less of a surprise. The novel spoke to the fans of that time and held their fears up to the light. That’s the sort of impression that might lead someone to cast a vote.
Whether or not this is what happened, I can’t say for sure. The above is informed speculation, and from things I’ve recently read on the matter, makes as much sense as most of the other explanations floating around out there. However it happened, They’d Rather Be Right did in fact win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955. If you have an interest in the history of science fiction, read this book for the sake of understanding its place in that history. If you’re just looking for a good story, however, you might want to skip to the third Hugo winner.