"Who’d rather be right," you might ask, and about what? Well, my friends, the answer to the first part is “you and me,” and the answer to the second is “about everything.” You can tell that Clifton and Riley were absolutely certain that they were writing the most profound book ever. Thing is, They’d Rather Be Right is not the most profound book ever written. It’s certainly one of the least profound that I’ve ever read. But it has a Message, and it flogs the Message over and over again...and then some more.
I’d read that They’d Rather Be Right is widely regarded as the worst Hugo winner. I don’t think I let this bias me…In fact, I rather wanted to be able to go against the tide and call this a lost gem. Things did not work out that way.
The basic story (and this novel gives The Demolished Man a run for its money in the overloaded-with-sci-fi-tropes department) is that two scientists have created a cybernetic artificial intelligence named Bossy. When the American Public hears of this, everyone freaks out and the scientists have to go into hiding in the slums of San Francisco with their student assistant Joe, who, by the way, is a very powerful telepath. Eventually, they end up connecting a 68 year-old prostitute named Mabel to Bossy, and Bossy turns her into a beautiful, young (and psychic) advanced being...and manages to remove her personality in the process, but we soon learn that, as far as the writers are concerned, this is for the best.
The American Public discovers Mabel and gets excited as the revivified old whore seems to suggest the prospect of immortality. But, they soon learn that one must give up all preconceived notions for Bossy’s psychosomatic Fountain of Youth treatment to work. Joe warns, “they’d rather by right.” We have a title! The second half of the novel consists of Joe telling us the same thing again and again (more of less every paragraph) – see Joe’s already expanded his own mind. He’s a precursor to the youthful but wise archetype that one sees a lot in the ‘60s – an example contemporary with the novel would be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. If only we were all as wise and empty-headed as Joe and Mabel!
This is the preachiest novel that ever did preach. Everyone, as we’re told again and again and again and again, is too stuck in their beliefs. Expand your mind, man! The book is especially harsh on scientists (who are so stupid as to only believe things that have been proven experimentally using the scientific method – silly scientists!) and the American Public (who are almost universally moronic, gullible and bigoted). Clifton and Riley outdo Bradbury’s contempt for the masses several times over, while they also ceaselessly attack intellectuals for the horrible crime of believing things. Only free-loving proto-hippies with totally open minds get it, man.
Not only is the novel preachy as hell, anti-rational, and full of sci-fi clichés, it’s also one of the most poorly written novels I’ve ever read. The prose is wordy, lifeless, and repetitive.
I hated this book. I really, really did. This book has made me question this Hugo-reading whole project. I suggest you avoid it like the plague unless you have a real historical interest in an early sci-fi counterculture work, or you’ve figured out how to give a novel the Mystery Science Theater treatment. Avoiding the novel will not be difficult, since it has been out-of-print for most of the 50 years since its publication.