They’d Rather Be Right

In a field full of teenage prodigies, Mark Clifton stands out for not publishing his first story until the age of 46 after retiring from a career as an industrial psychologist. Perhaps all that preparation was helpful. He started at the top with stories almost simultaneously in Astounding and Galaxy in 1952. Astounding was his natural home, though; he apparently believed in psi powers as fervently as Astounding editor John Campbell.

Two stories for Astounding, “Crazy Joey,” (August 1953), about a young telepath, and “Hide! Hide! Witch!” (December 1953), with an older Joe helping a Dr. Billings to invent a logical supercomputer, Bossy, were written with Alex Apostolides, who wrote five stories with Clifton that year and only one alone thereafter. The second story ends with Bossy being dismantled to calm the fears of stupid humanity.

Clifton kept the series going, though, with a new partner, Frank Riley. The Forever Machine appeared as a four part serial in Astounding in 1954. Riley, who also had not published any sf before working with Clifton, was the pen name for Frank Wilbert Rhylick, a Los Angeles journalist. He wrote only about another half dozen sf stories on his own and has no identity in the field except for this one story.

The Forever Machne is perhaps the purest distilled essence of Campbellian 1950s agitprop, as stifling as that of the Communists. In its future, government bureaucracy is near-Orwellian in allowing only approved thoughts and speech. Bossy is a mind that works off of pure facts and can convey that power to humans who are able to free themselves of old ways of thinking, giving them eternal youth and telepathy to boot, themes obviously reminiscent of two more of Campbell pet enthusiasms, General Semantics and Dianetics.

The trifecta of pseudoscience thrilled 50s’ readers; fans gifted the serial with the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1955. Since Marty Greenberg practically had a pneumatic tube to Campbell’s office the only surprise is that it took him until 1957 to publish it in book form. (It was somewhat changed from the magazine version, admittedly.) And that he renamed it They’d Rather Be Right instead of the far superior The Forever Machine, a title reused the next year when an abridged version of the novel was published by, of all people, Campbell’s rival Horace Gold as a paperback Galaxy Novel. The paperback’s debt to Gnome is obvious. The back cover blurb is the flap copy from Gnome lightly rewritten.

Reaction since the 50s has not been so kind. The Forever Machine is often help up as the single worst book to be voted Best Novel. There was no shortlist issued in 1955 so we don’t know what the other candidates were, but 1954 saw the publication of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, James Blish’s Earthman, Come Home, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and Edgar Pangborn’s International Fantasy Award winning A Mirror for Observers. That Tolkien fellow published some stuff in 1954 as well, but no sf award would recognize out-and-out fantasy at the time.

Floyd C. Gale reviewed the book for Galaxy:

Although a passably workmanlike job, loose ends outnumber neat knits in this yarn.

Contents and original publication:

  • Astounding Science Fiction, August 1954, September 1954, October 1954, and November 1954, as The Forever Machine.

They’d Rather Be Right, by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
(pseud. of Frank Rhylick)
, 1957, title #65, 189 pages, $3.00, 5000 copies printed, 2065 remaindered. Hardback, black boards with green lettering. Jacket design by W.I. Van der Poel. “First Edition” stated on copyright page. Printed by H. Wolff, New York. Back cover: 35 titles listed, through Earthman’s Burden. Gnome Press address given as 80 East 11th St., New York 3.