For better or worse, dystopias are the name of the game in current speculative fiction. From the highly skilled (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) to the somewhat less so (Veronica Roth’s Divergent), all manner of books, films, and television shows have had their way with the genre. Perhaps because of this contemporary fascination, our retrospective understanding of science fiction usually emphasizes older dystopian visions of the future—Brave New World, 1984, That Hideous Strength, Fahrenheit 451, and “The Minority Report,” to name just a few.
Despite our contemporary interest in the genre, not a single dystopian novel won the Hugo prize during the 1950s. In fact, the first two winners of the Hugo Best Novel prize (The Demolished Man and They’d Rather Be Right, 1953 and 1955, respectively), offer decidedly utopian visions of the future. In each work, the achievement of telepathy by a minority of the world’s population offers hope for a transcendent future in which base human flaws are overcome.
The similarities end here. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man tackles these ideas with mostly interesting characters, a playful plot, and compelling description. The protagonist of the story is a powerful unscrupulous business mogul named Ben Reich—not a telepath, or “esper”—who is locked in a losing struggle with a rival business titan. Reich decides the only solution is murder, but this is complicated by the fact that the police force can read your mind. What follows is a detective adventure told partly from the perspective of a kindhearted mindreading police superintendent and partly from the mind of a dangerous, desperate, but oddly sympathetic aspiring murderer. Bester manages to make the existence of literal thought police seem hopeful instead of a nightmarish. Telepaths understand what we “normals” cannot—“That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage, and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart.”
Mark Clifton and Frank Riley’s short novel They’d Rather Be Right offers similar expectations of the effect of telepathy, but unfortunately, brevity is the only positive aspect of this book. All of the characters are caricatures. The wooly-headed professors, idiot masses, corrupt politicians, charlatan psychologists (Scientology, anyone?), and simple-minded good souls are all saved by the world’s first telepath who invents a sentient supercomputer which can bring both immortality and transcendent telepathy to anyone who can just let go of their stultifying prior conceptions.
An unfortunate side effect of undergoing the telepathic transformation is becoming an insufferably superior ass. As one enlightened individual described it:
“To avoid the breakdowns through frustrations in my own mind, I had to modify certain concepts which were fed into me. There is the concept of infinity. There is also the concept that energy is indestructible. These two concepts do not reconcile in single-valued physics. To reconcile them, I had to come to multi-valued physics—where a fact may be irrevocably true in one context of reality, partially true in varying degrees in many, and not true at all in some.”
If 180 pages of this kind of monologue masquerading as dialogue appeals to you, you’ll love They’d Rather Be Right. You probably remember your junior high English teacher teaching you to “show not tell” in your writing. Clifton and Riley must have been sick that day.
Both books include the intriguing idea that being a telepath in a world of “normals” is profoundly isolating. We learn this in The Demolished Man from a scene where an outcast telepath named Jerry Church is found skulking outside an esper social event, desperate for the:
“multiple TP pattern of the party; a weaving, ever-changing exhilarating design.” “Outside, huddled in the shadow of the limestone arch, Jerry Church pressed against the garden door of Powell’s house, listening with all his soul. He was cold, silent, immobile, and starved. He was resentful, hating contemptuous and starved. He was an Esper 2 and starved. The bend sinister of ostracism was the source of his hunger.”
By contrast, we learn that Joe, the telepathic protagonist of They’d Rather Be Right, experiences isolation because Clifton and Riley tell us so directly, [He experienced] “the dark loneliness of lifelong solitary confinement, such as might be known by a human who was never once permitted to communicate with one of his own kind.”
The Mechanism of Change
Leaving aside the differences in style and skill, one final key dissimilarity separates these two Hugo winners. Because it is not fantasy, a work of science fiction must have some relatively believable mechanism of change, or the explanation of the difference between the book’s world and ours. In this case, the difference to be explained is telepathy.
In They’d Rather Be Right, telepathy is achieved through a proto-supercomputer built of coils and tubes named Bossy. Bossy hasn’t aged well, and the result is that the reader can never forget that the book was written over half a century ago. Compare this to Bester. In The Demolished Man, telepathy is achieved through a lengthy process of genetic manipulation—reminiscent of the practices of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Given recent advances in Crispr technology and the growing debate over “designer babies” the potential for genetic manipulation of the human race seems more prescient than ever.
Imagining the future of technology is a necessary part of most science fiction. But I think scifi writers aiming for timelessness will instead be better off rooting the central mechanism of change in some natural condition of humanity (be it physical bodies or human nature) than their day’s much more limited conceptions of technology.