They’d Rather Be Right (The Forever Machine) by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley (1954)

they'dratherberightThere might be a story somewhere underneath all this twaddle, but Clifton and Riley chose to tell the wrong one.

You would think the combined effort of two authors would enhance the narrative, correct the mistakes, and plug the plot holes. Two perspectives, two brains, two sets of eyeballs… it should amount to a more perfect work, but instead, like all classroom group work, the product fizzles with a fragmented story, cut-and-paste wisdom, and retroactive elaboration. And one writer probably did most of the work, while the other guy flirted with some girls at another table.

Well, that’s been my experience with group work.

The Story
Professors Billings and Hoskins are on the run after creating Bossy, a controversial supercomputer with powerful, yet untested potential. The professors depend on telepathic student, Joe Carter, to help them evade the government until they can test out Bossy on a human being. But Joe may have other interests in Bossy that he isn’t revealing.

It starts a few chapters too early. It’s driven by the wrong character. The science is screwy, (I’m assuming, because it doesn’t make any sense, and the authors don’t bother to explain it). The plot holes are gargantuan. The flow is obstructed with clunky dialogue tags, and chunks of elaborative text, voiced differently, as if one author wrote the story, then the other went back to add paragraphs of detail, in order to meet the length of a novel.

But, strangely, it’s still a page-turner, but only because I foolishly anticipated interesting plot developments that never materialized.

*Spoiler Alert*

*Not that it matters*

It turns out that Bossy (stupid name for a computer, and it’s not even an acronym) can grant eternal youth and immortality by way of cyber-psychosomatic therapy, designed by applying Einstein’s theories to psychology (huh?). The subject plugs in, goes into a coma for a couple of weeks, and Bossy searches their brain for maladjustments and disorders, corrects them, and feeds the subject “plasma” through an I.V. Then, the subject wakes up as a completely new person with a hot, 21-year-old bod and telepathic powers. But it only works on people who have flexible worldviews (i.e. criminals, uneducated), and not scholarly folks with rigid biases.

The first major problem: Bossy’s test subject is Mabel, an aged prostitute who provides cover for money-launderers. She’s kind and tolerant, easily impressed, and supposedly messed up. BUT WE NEVER GET TO KNOW HER. She gets fixed by Bossy, then runs around naked. The entire story should have been from her point-of-view, but we get cardboard Joe instead…

The second major problem: Not only can Joe read minds, but he can telepathically control the behaviors of others, even from a short distance. But the writers forget that at times, and conflicts happen that could have been managed by Joe’s telepathic control, which rendered many scenes unnecessary.

The third major problem: If aging is caused by the daily wear-and-tear of mental health, as the premise suggests, why do animals age? Sure, my mom’s dog is neurotic, and we have these asshole birds called grackles, who clearly have insecurity issues, but the prairie dogs in my area seem totally chilled, and they have short life spans.

The fourth major problem: The premise is intriguing, but the writers do not foster that intrigue. They neglect the contextual and emotional shifts that the story presents, while they stick to the dry outline of their original plan. Even the dubious science could be forgiven if the story had more dramatic meat.

It’s lazy. It’s clumsy. Don’t bother. If you want a vintage Hugo winner, read this one.

And if that’s not enough to convince you, you can read this article, which addresses the controversy surrounding this book’s Hugo win.

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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel (1974) by Kate Wilhelm

Image

Great story, terrible cover.
No me gusta. (M.C. Escher)

This 1977 Hugo winner about cloning is a powerful dystopic vision that addresses common social themes, such as the constriction of society, the strength of the individual, and the power of imagination. But there is nothing common about it. And it’s not even about birds.

It’s no surprise that this novel is cherished by many SF fans. Wilhelm does it right: the story is engaging, the characters are relatable, and the science is provocative. I have no complaints. None.

The novel is broken into three parts, each about a different generational character:

  • David is the progeny of a wealthy, educated family who erect a well-stocked hospital in time for the coming apocalypse. As humanity is wiped out and sexual reproduction fails, David and his uncle decide to clone the family, but the clones seem… different. This section of the book oscillates between romantic and creepy tones.
  • Molly is a clone with astounding artistic gifts. A life-changing cartography trip down the river results in her loss of interest in her clone sisters, which upsets the clone community. Some of the more nightmarish aspects of the community are revealed in this section.
  • Mark, the product of a sexual relationship, is the only of his kind among a society of clones. He is gifted, intelligent, and willful, which means he is a powerful threat to the clone community. But they also need him for the same traits they fear. We get to explore the strained, tenuous relationship between the individual and the community.

In addition to social issues, Where Late the Sweet Bids Sang evokes popular past and present SF concepts. The societal influence brings to mind Le Guin’s The Dispossessedthe Hugo winner from two years prior. For TV lovers, the clones and their numbered monikers behave much like the cylons from Battlestar Galactica, while the references to “tree voices” resemble the disembodied “whispers” of Lost. Genre-hoppers might appreciate the creepy foreboding that edges on the brink of horror, and the unique romances that bloom within the twisted society. Wilhelm also posits an interesting theory regarding the effect of individuality on our potential for telepathy.

This story is close to perfect. If I had any criticisms, I would wish for more of each story, but I can see how that would negatively affect the overall tone and story. I also have a few questions about the transition of clone children from the nursery to care of the older clone siblings, and there are undefined chronological gaps between stories, which make it difficult to determine the duration of intervals between stories. (I kept wondering if and when the original family members had all died out). Regardless, this is all nit-picking, and the story proves its value as a must-read SF classic.