11 February 2019

Hugos 1955: The Forever Machine by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley

Mass market paperback, 250 pages
Published 1992 (contents: 1953-54)
Acquired and read August 2018
The Forever Machine by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley

If you're going to read The Forever Machine a.k.a. They'd Rather Be Right, I highly recommend picking up the 1992 "Masters of Science Fiction" edition from Caroll & Graf. The original 1954 serial novel was actually a sequel to two short stories, "Crazy Joey" and "Hide! Hide! Witch!" by Mark Clifton & Alex Apostolides, and they're incorporated into the text here as Part I, "Crazy Joey" (though Apostolides is uncredited). The two provide somewhat helpful backstory, but more importantly, the original "Crazy Joey" is actually the best part of the book. Joey is a telepathic kid whose weirdnesses make him the object of hate of both his classmates and his father. His mother takes him to a psychiatrist, who figures out he's telepathic, but Joey picks this up and so begins downplaying his abilities, and there's a neat sort of cat-and-mouse game between Joey and the psychiatrist as Joey tries to not do what the psychiatrist wants him to do, and the psychiatrist tries to let mentally slip what Joey ought to do. It's kind of affecting, and kind of neat.

The rest of the book (the second half of Part I, which was originally "Hide! Hide! Witch!", and Part II, the original 1954 novel They'd Rather Be Right, called "'Bossy'" in this edition) is about how Joe's powers are used to construct a telepathic supercomputer at the behest of a totalitarian government. Joe and company dismantle the computer and go on the run; the computer is then reassembled and it grants a burnt-out old prostitute eternal youth. It's one of those books that goes on a bit, but when you think back you're not sure why, because surely the characters couldn't have just sat in a warehouse and talked about nothing for a hundred pages, yet clearly, somehow, they did. I feel like any description I can make of it doesn't do it justice, in that it's somehow more boring than it sounds. It's one of those sf books that seems to miss the interesting aspect of its novum; I like the idea that immortality requires one to abandon one's preconceptions of the universe, so there are some people who cannot become immortal because, well, they'd rather be right. So a billionaire industrialist can't become immortal, because he has a high level of certainty about how he thinks the world works, and cannot admit to being wrong about that. But the book doesn't really explore this idea; it just offers it to you and in the meantime you read about uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. So if you're going to read it, read this edition, but probably don't actually read it.

I note that this book shares with its predecessor as Hugo Award for Best Novel winner The Demolished Man an interest in the power of marketing. In both novels, marketing can do incredible things in the way it shapes public opinion. I guess this is a thing people were just becoming aware of in the 1950s, and thus 1950s sf was extrapolating it into the future. (A quick spot of Wikipedia research seems to indicate marketing really took off as a thing in the 1930s, so that makes sense.)

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