Thursday, 8 September 2011

Walter Tevis - Mockingbird

With its eyecatching cover illustration, Mockingbird is a novel which has been tempting me on and off for a few years. I finally bought it, and have been absorbed in it for the last week, right until turning that final page just an hour ago.

Mockingbird is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking dystopian books I have read to date. The quirky blurb on the back cover doesn't properly prepare you for the story you're about to follow. Mockingbird falls somewhere in between Farenheit 451, Brave New World and Tevis' own The Man Who Fell to Earth. 

Written in 1980, Mockingbird tells the classic tale of how man created robots to help then, ultimately becoming reliant on the robots and technology, resulting in the downfall of society – and it's some time after this that the book begins. The story is set in New York, in an initially undetermined future, where humanoid robots make up a large part of society and the government. Buildings lie abandoned and overgrown and the population is sterile. There are no children. People cannot read. What remains of the human race spend their days doped up and high, dependent on freely-dispensed Sopor pills, avoiding eye-contact and 'privacy invasion', not learning to love or make love, with 'quick sex' being merely a pastime.

Mockingbird brings together a trio of protagonists, starting with Robert Spofforth, a Black, towering youthful Make Nine robot. The last Make Nine ever made, with a brain fuelled by real human memories from a long-dead creator. Spofforth is troubled by his fragmented dreams and memories and has only one thing on his mind - his own death. However his inhibitor circuits prevent him from self-destruction. Spofforth continues his duties as University Dean and oversees maintenance of the other worker robots throughout the city and the psychic Thought Buses.

One day Spofforth meets Bentley – a man who can read. The chapters which follow cleverly alternate between Spofforth and Bentley, and follow Bentley's discovery of reading, writing journal entries and watching archive films. Bentley feels that something isn't right. Something under the surface; something about his upbringing and conditioning. He starts to question things. Why are the children in the streets robots? Why are there no young people? Why can't people read? Why do people immolate themselves in public? Why are the animals in the Zoo robots? And it was whilst at the Zoo that he meets Mary Lou – a woman who somehow escaped the conditioning in her youth.

We follow Bentley and his relationship with Mary Lou. Together they break every rule in the book. She moves in with him, he teaches her to read, and together they explore fragments of the forgotten world that went before the age of robots and sterility – until Spofforth intervenes.

Mockingbird almost reads like a film. It depicts a troubled society in a near future, in a very assertable way. It is sad, haunting, unsettling and exciting. The storytelling perhaps follows a more commonplace style from the midpoint of the book, but never drifts too far away from the main story to become tiresome. Tevis' characters are solidly developed and believable. I found myself feeling for them - even Spofforth - and desperate to read on at the end of every chapter.

The themes may not be anything radical or revolutionary; we've seen and read it all before in various forms, but they're done so well in Mockingbird. I don't doubt that a well-read copy of this book sits on many a film director's bookshelf, and deservedly so. Yet Mockingbird feels undervalued and seldom mentioned, which is a great shame.

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