Friday, April 23, 2010

Book Review: The Forever Machine

Also published as They'd Rather Be Right
Mark Clifton & Frank Riley
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

I have read several reviews of this book that say it is trite and clichéd. But I mainly enjoyed it.

The main character is a telepathic man who grew up ostracized and isolated because of his abilities. He doesn’t want to be so lonely so he builds a machine that can make other people into telepaths.

The book’s premise is that everyone has the potential to be a telepath. But our prejudices and judgmental natures prevent us from being one.

When you’re telepathic, of course, you know what everyone else is thinking. This means that telepaths have to be the most understanding, least judgmental people on earth. It would lead to a great deal of upset and disorder if telepaths were unable to handle knowing the bad things that even the best of us sometimes think.

In order to make you telepathic, therefore, the machine strips out all your preconceived ideas about what is right and wrong and rebuilds you, cell by cell, from the ground up…

…which has the nice side effect of making old people young again.

Which means that once the machine has been run on its first person, an elderly woman, and she is transformed back into a beautiful twenty-year-old, everybody on earth wants it.

The catch is that the machine won’t work on anybody who is convinced that they are absolutely right about something. If you are not flexible enough to be removed of all your assumptions and prejudices, then you will come out of the machine unchanged.

I especially liked the first third of this book, when the telepathic man is a young boy. As a child, he reacts not to what people are saying but to what they are really thinking, which of course makes everyone think he is crazy. He learns, painfully, that it is better to disguise the fact that he can tell what people are thinking.

In the second third of the book, the boy grows up and goes to college and teams up with two professors to create the telepath-making machine. Throughout the project the three of them are alternately reviled and revered by the public, because the public is both terrified of what the machine means and also greedy for it. Eventually popular opinion turns totally against them; they become the target of a witch hunt and have to go into hiding. This part was good too.

After the machine has actually been built, however, and its three creators start doing demonstrations of the machine for the public, the book kind of loses its way. It becomes far too heavy-handed in its lesson about how we all need to be more flexible and realize that we’re not always right. I also thought the solution for what to do with the machine in the end was dissatisfying.

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