The Forever Machine

Review: The Forever Machine, by Mark Clifton & Frank Riley

Publisher: Carroll & Graf
Copyright: 1956
ISBN: 0-88184-842-5
Pages: 351

Originally published under the title They'd Rather Be Right, The Forever Machine was the winner of the second Hugo award for best novel. It's probably the most obscure and difficult-to-locate Hugo winner. There are good reasons for that.

I'm not sure that it's the worst book to ever win a Hugo. There are other Hugo winners that I found more offensive failures, like the nihilism of A Case of Conscience or the arrogant stupidity of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. The Forever Machine doesn't try hard enough to reach that level of failure. It is, instead, an example of the sort of preachy, cliched story that was once a mainstay of science fiction and would now be difficult to find a publisher for.

The Forever Machine is the story of a telepath living in a future United States that has become locked in a straightjacket of scientific orthodoxy, a country in which any new theory that contradicts accepted knowledge is rejected and ignored. He uses his abilities to coordinate a team of scientists who normally would never work together, showing them that they had the necessary ingredients to build a better-than-human AI if they could coordinate their efforts. The rest of the story documents the public and government reactions to this AI, the strange powers that a thoroughly logical intelligence apparently gains, and the resulting shake-up in culture.

Not a bad idea. Hide-bound scientific thinking isn't a common threat to warn against, but this book was written in a much different era and perhaps it was a more relevant criticism then. AI development is a long-standing SF theme, as is telepathy. Unfortunately, they're put together into a story that, when it isn't ridden with cliches and preaching, goes out on scientific limbs that are simply bizarre.

The cliches are the worst, and this book is a litany of them. Early in the story, the poor misunderstood telepath (abusive father, loving but blind mother) is saved from suicide by the unconditional love of a cute little puppy. That sets the tone for the rest of the book. There is a hooker with a heart of gold, a likeable street-wise con man, an aging professor, a practical engineer, and even a principled, industrious, trustworthy corporate leader straight out of the pages of Atlas Shrugged. Even the telepath, who's the most fully-fleshed character in the book, serves primarily as a philosophical mouthpiece and never achieves any depth of character.

The plot is adequate, if you can tolerate the cliches, but it's presented in a style that thankfully has almost disappeared from published science fiction. Clifton and Riley relentlessly tell the reader what's happening and why rather than letting the story tell itself, interrupting it for philosophical asides and essays on the (over-simplified) nature of humanity. It reminded me of reading early Stan Lee comic books, the ones that in one's memory have transformed into the great stories of one's childhood but that, on re-reading, are surprisingly painful at a mechanical level. We've since been spoiled by much superior storytelling technique and older works feel forced, blatant, and far more distant from the reader; the narrator is too visible, too obviously telling a story rather than letting the reader watch it, but also not taking a place in the story as a character.

The science of The Forever Machine also suffers, not only from the standard and forgivable failures of extrapolation, but also from one particularly bizarre extrapolation of psychosomatic reactions. The perfectly logical AI can become the perfect psychiatrist, and apparently the perfect psychiatrist has to treat mental illnesses of one's entire body. Every individual cell is a mess of neuroses and hangups, you see, not to mention being worn down by the relentless pressure of gravity, and all of that trauma has to be exposed and resolved. Once it has been, the result is not only a perfectly balanced human but an immortal body, with a reversal of aging thrown in free. I kept wondering when Clifton and Riley were going to start mentioning thetans.

There aren't specific glaring flaws in this book so much as a general lack of merit. I'm sure that it was an early exploration of various themes that have since been done better by others; most work of that era that isn't "spaceman defeats pirates and rescues girl" was. However, it's simply not very good. Completism on Hugo winners is the only reason to bother; it is an eminently forgettable novel published in a time when the standards for SF are far lower than they are today. That it was even considered for a Hugo shows how much stronger the genre has become.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Posted: 2005-10-13 23:38 — Why no comments?

Interesting assessment. Like most of your audience, I've never read the book in question (I wonder if the Retro Hugos will start giving out "non-awards" for Hugo honorees that shouldn't have been... no, I guess not), but something you said struck me.

Hide-bound scientific thinking isn't a common threat to warn against, but this book was written in a much different era and perhaps it was a more relevant criticism then.

In the late thirties to early fifties, this was a pretty common trope. Campbell's magazine published a lot of stories dealing with the theme. Heinlein in particular revisited it again and again. "Lifeline," "Let There Be Light" and in its own way "Rocket Ship Galileo" all had bright, plucky 'outside the box' thinkers who had to break through the ossified opinions of the scientific establishment that knew both the proper way of doing things and clung to their own hypotheses with the dogged determination of an 16th Century Aristotelian.

Really, one of the reasons that trope had died such a deserved death is the popularity of science fiction among the scientific and engineering communities. We have multiple generations of scientist at this point for whom the first reaction is a sense of wonder and possibility, rather than the last. Between those things and the abject mental chaos of quantum theory, it's hard to too credibly posit hidebound scientific establishment these days.

Posted by Eric Burns at 2005-10-14 05:47

I read this book and liked it. (See sfsignal.com/archives/000131.html) It's interesting how different people take away different things from a book and have two completely different reading experiences.

Posted by john at 2005-10-14 20:20

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04