Mockingbird: A warning against drug use and illiteracy

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis science fiction book reviewsMockingbird by Walter Tevis

In the 25th century, the human race is quickly dwindling. Robots and computers do all of the work while humans spend their meaningless lives in a drug-haze. From birth they are not educated except to be taught not to question their circumstances (“Don’t ask; relax.” “When in doubt, forget it.”) and not to get involved with other humans except to quickly satisfy sexual urges. Most people think they’re happy this way and any who become conscious enough to realize they’re not tend to kill themselves. A preferred method is to set themselves afire in public while others try not to stare. Getting involved would be “invasion of privacy.”

One person who is deeply disturbed by humanity’s decline is an android named Spofforth who is the dean of New York University. He’s shaped as a tall handsome Black man and is the last of the most sophisticated model of robots ever created. Distressed about what has happened to the humans he once served, he keeps trying to kill himself by jumping off the Empire State Building, but his programming won’t let him.

When a man named Paul Bentley contacts Spofforth, declares that he’s taught himself to read, and asks for a job, Spofforth hires him. As he works in the university archives, Bentley begins to learn about ancient American culture and begins to question his society. When he meets a young woman who has also rebelled, they begin to read and, thus, to change their lives.

Originally published in 1980 when Walter Tevis was in his 50s, Mockingbird in many ways feels like one of the dystopian novels that Tevis, an English professor at Ohio State University, would have been familiar with: Brave New World, Anthem, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451. Tevis’s particular spins are the literacy and sobriety angles. As he reports in interviews, Mockingbird was inspired by his own life. He was worried about the declining literacy of his students, and he was an alcoholic who had recently sobered up, so the story is about a man who is gradually becoming both literate and sober and discovering the wonder of reading and real life. Tevis also explores the importance of work, history, music and literature as ways that we connect and share the human experience together. In addition to drugs and illiteracy, he warns about the dangers of automobiles and television and against excessive solitude and individualism.

As far as dystopias go, I thought this one was a little less believable. It is hard for me to imagine an American society that chooses to be illiterate. But still I truly enjoyed the story, especially some of the imaginative elements such as an underground mall that is home to a quasi-Christian cult and a factory in which robots perpetually construct toasters that don’t work.

Last week Tantor Media released an audio version of Mockingbird. It’s almost 10 hours long and narrated by Robert Fass and Nicole Poole who perform the male and female point-of-views, respectively. They did a great job, though my preference is almost always to have a single narrator so that during dialogue, character voices remain consistent.

Mockingbird was nominated for a Nebula Award. Walter Tevis, who died of lung cancer four years after its release, also wrote the popular novels The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Each of these was made into a major motion picture.

Print published in 1980. Audio published March 1, 2016: In a world where the human population has suffered devastating losses, a handful of survivors cling to what passes for life in a postapocalyptic, dying landscape. A world where humans wander, drugged and lulled by electronic bliss. A dying world of no children and no art, where reading is forbidden. And a strange love triangle: Spofforth, who runs the world, the most perfect machine ever created, whose only wish is to die; and Paul and Mary Lou, a man and a woman whose passion for each other is the only hope for the future of human beings on Earth. An elegiac dystopia of mankind coming to terms with its own imminent extinction, Mockingbird was nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for letting us know about this one, Kat. I had never heard of it. A forgotten classic?

    I think every generation of professors thinks the “younger generation” is illiterate.

    • I’m embarrassed that I’ve seen the film adaptations of Tevis’ works, but haven’t yet read the original material. Thanks for reminding me that I need to fix this!

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