Astounding Stories #19: They’d Rather Be Right
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
They’d Rather Be Right, which was originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1954, is often called the worst novel ever to win a Hugo Award. Like many stories from those days, it was based on a premise by the editor John W. Campbell, which he shopped around to his stable of writers until he found somebody who was willing to take it. Here’s how he described it in a letter to G. Harry Stine:
Imagine somebody invents a machine—we’ll call it the “psychosomatron”—full of electronic tubes, automatic integrators, chemical analyzers, biochemical agents, and automatic injector contraptions. The psychomatron can take an old, broken-down, feeble man of ninety and, in four one-hour treatments, turn him into a vigorous, active, twenty-five-year-old equivalent. It will take any adult and turn him into his physical-health-maximum.
However, since so much physical deterioration is psychosomatic…the machine also has to realign the individual’s experiences and ideas—has to integrate them, too, into an harmonious system…The result is somewhat disconcerting to people, however…Eternal youth and strength, wisdom, success, happiness—but only at the cost of giving up every prejudice and bias you hold so dear.
Campbell then gives the hypothetical case of a ninety-year-old white supremacist who accepts the treatment, becomes young again—but only at the cost of losing all of his racial prejudices. Another example, which was probably closer to Campbell’s heart, is “the dreamy-eyed idealist [who] hates it because it turned his friend into a vigorous, hard-working, practical individual—who’s getting things done instead of carrying on the dear old, long, long discussions about what somebody ought to do.”
After pitching the idea to the great Eric Frank Russell, who passed, Campbell gave it to Mark Clifton, who ultimately wrote it up as a collaboration with Frank Riley. Campbell was delighted by the result:
It came out exactly as I expected it would—unlike the plots either of us had discussed, because it took off on its own and built itself as it went…It is no more like what I had in mind than it is like what you started with.
In fact, the result is indeed somewhat different from what Campbell had conceived. It focuses on a pair of cyberneticists who have developed a computer, nicknamed Bossy, with a perfect synthetic mind. (Bossy was originally a servomechanism designed as a missile guidance system, which is the first of many references to the work of Norbert Wiener.) In the face of the widespread fear that Bossy will take over people’s jobs, the scientists are forced to flee from an anti-intellectual mob—a theme that would later be explored in greater depth by James Gunn in “Witches Must Burn.” With the aid of Joe, a student with telepathic abilities, they set up a secret workshop in a slum, where they decide to focus on one particular line of research: the complete regeneration of the human body. Their first test subject is Mabel, a faded ex-prostitute with a heart of gold, who is transformed by Bossy into the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, with superhuman ethical, intellectual, and psychic abilities. Overnight, public opinion turns in favor of the treatment, but it quickly curdles after it becomes clear that not everyone can benefit from it. Mabel was an ideal patient because she’d long ago given up all her convictions. Individuals with more firmly engrained prejudices, like the older of the two scientists who developed the process, subconsciously resist giving up their cherished preconceptions, and so the therapy fails.
Up to this point, the story is readable but not particularly inspired, studded with passages and ideas that might have been drawn straight from Campbell’s letters and editorials. What makes it interesting—and more worthwhile than its reputation implies—is the master plan of the young telepath Joe, who has been secretly running the project all along. Immortality, he reveals, was nothing but bait to convince people to become more enlightened, and it clearly hasn’t worked: Bossy is treated as just another weapon, with the government fighting various private interests for control. The solution, Joe says, is to put Bossy into mass production, “like vacuum cleaners, radios, automobiles,” and make her cheap enough so everybody can have one:
The actual machine, itself, [would] be available to anyone who wanted her…He realized what this would do to the economy of the world; but the changes which Bossy would bring about were only magnifications of the changes which had occurred when the steering wheel replaced the buggy whip…Each man would now hold all the answers he needed to solve his own economic problems—the answers would be limited only by the man’s inability to ask the right questions…There must be intercommunication between all the Bossies.
The italics, of course, are mine. It continues: “The world sat stunned at the announcement that everyone would have Bossy. No one had ever believed that any except a special privileged few would benefit from her.” And in a long closing speech, Joe lays out the rules of the new era in human history: “Bossy is just a tool. Bossy can answer your questions, but only if you ask them…Ladies and gentlemen of the world. There she sits. Bossy is yours.”
That’s how it ends—and I think it’s fair to say that his words have a somewhat different ring today than they did in the early fifties. They’d Rather Be Right might fail to offer a plausible or dramatically satisfying vision of a world faced with the prospect of immortality, but it does a remarkable job of laying out the implications of affordable personal computers and the Internet, a full three decades before it was even conceivable. I’ve noted before how rarely science fiction foresaw what ended up being the most significant technological and cultural development of our time, and Clifton and Riley’s novel is arguably more prescient about our predicament than more famous stories like “A Logic Named Joe.” As Joe the telepath says:
There she sits. She is a tool who will heat your homes, or bring you entertainment, or cook your food, or bathe the baby, or walk the dog, or figure your income tax…She can also give you a tremendous comprehension in time, the nature of which we do not yet even dream. She can give you immortality. But you must rise to her requirements…She is yours. She is not a threat. But she is a challenge. She is perhaps the greatest challenge which mankind has ever been called upon to meet…She is a challenge to your willingness to learn rather than to argue.
When you remove the idea of immortality from the equation, or reframe it properly as an allegory, it becomes obvious that the test that the story describes is one that we’ve all been given, and mostly failed, over the last twenty years. It’s no exaggeration to say that we all have the technological and informational resources to become the best versions of ourselves, at ridiculously low prices, but we generally prefer to use these tools to become more like what we already are. We play out this scenario every time we go online. They’d Rather Be Right has plenty of flaws, but it also came true, which is more than we can say for most of the acknowledged masterpieces of science fiction. Clifton and Riley would probably agree that it wasn’t a great novel. But maybe they’d rather be right.