Saturday, September 4, 2010

SF Masterworks #70: Walter Tevis, Mockingbird

Dystopias come in many shapes and sizes.  Some, such as George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm, revolve around totalitarian regimes.  Others, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, concern themselves more with a near-total abdication of personal responsibility by human societies themselves.  And some, such as Walter Tevis' 1980 novel, Mockingbird, explore the idea of a humanity too numb to care about its own joys, pleasures, and hopes.  Although each of these three main streams of dystopic writing have their merits, it easily could be argued that the third, represented by Mockingbird, in many respects most resembles our own societies, or at least an idealized version of them in the thirty years since Tevis' most famous novel was published.

Mockingbird opens in New York sometime in the future.  Human life has begun to fade into a tedious, numb existence under the dominion of the robots they have created.  There is no creativity; humans are "programmed" to be uninquisitive, unthinking beings who have no art and no literature.  Their lives are empty, devoid of the pleasures associated with creation.  It is a sort of hellish existence, where even the enjoyment found in sexual intercourse has largely been stripped away.  The human population has dwindled, with no new births during the last few years before the story begins.  Even among the robots, there is no contentment, no analogue to pleasure.  The most advanced class of robots, the android Make Nines, have all, with the one notable exception of Robert Spofforth, have committed suicide due to their all-too human-like awareness of the unbearable tedium of existence.  As the story begins, Spofforth reveals just why he still exists:

The door opened and Spofforth walked in and headed across the dark lobby toward the stairway.  He muted the pain circuits in his legs and lungs, and began to climb.  He was no longer whistling; his elaborate mind had become fixed narrowly now upon his annual intent.

When he reached the edge of the platform, as high above the city as one could stand, Spofforth sent the command to the nerves in his legs and the pain surged into them.  He wobbled slightly form it, high and alone in the black night, with no moon above him and the stars dim.  The surface underfoot was smooth, polished; once years before Spofforth had almost slipped.  Immediately he had thought, in disappointment, If only that would happen again, at the edge.  But it did not.

He walked to within two feet of the platform's limit, and with no mental signal, no volition, no wish for it to happen, his legs stopped moving and he found himself, as always, immobilized, facing Fifth Avenue uptown, over a thousand dark feet above its hard and welcome surface.  Then he urged his body forward in sad and grim desperation, focusing his will upon the desire to fall forward, merely to lean his strong and heavy body, his factory-made body, out, away from the building, away from life.  Inwardly he began to scream for movement, picturing himself tumbling in slow motion, gracefully and surely, to the street below.  Yearning for that. (p. 2)

Spofforth's sad existence, that of a hyper-intelligent, self-aware being in a world where both robots and humans alike have sunk into a morass of apathetic lethargy, is one of three main plot threads in this novel.  There are two humans, Bentley and Mary Lou, who have managed to escape the sort of dreary automation-like fate that had enveloped humans in this dreary future:

He had no conscious feelings about them, of the usually vacant-eyed, slow-moving and silent groups of them, going quietly from class to class or sitting alone in the Privacy rooms smoking dope and watching abstract patterns on their wall-sized television sets and listening to mindless, hypnotic music from speakers.  But in his mind there was almost always the image of one; the girl in the red coat.  She had worn that ancient coat all winter and still wore it on spring nights.  It was not the only thing different about her.  There was sometimes a look on her face, flirtatious, narcissistic, vain, that was different from the rest of them.  They were all told to develop themselves 'individually' but they all looked the same and acted the same, with their quiet voices and their expressionless faces.  She swung her hips when she walked, and sometimes she laughed, loudly, when everyone else was quiet, absorbed in herself.  Her skin was as white as milk and her hair coal black. (p. 9)

Mockingbird alternates between Spofforth, Bentley, and Mary Lou's viewpoints as they wander through a New York City and an United States that was listless to the point of death.  Each of them experiences iterations of this bland, nearly-lifeless existence that has grasped virtually all of humanity.  Tevis reveals the full horrors of this type of existence, where there are no hopes, no dreams; only the desire for existence to end.  Mockingbird moves swiftly, with few lags in the action of the novel.  Tevis has created here a setting that is so dark, so dreary that ironically it feels more "alive" as the situations that the three PoV characters experience become all the more dark and depressing.

Mockingbird is a powerful story, one that can be read as a metaphor for human life over the past half-century or so.  Nanny TV, or "my children were raised by TV and grew up under the computer," is a very real concern among educators and others who bemoan the declining interest in the fine arts and literature.  Those who have beheld those Ritalin-induced comatose schoolchildren will recognize something of that vacuous, absent look in the description given above.  It is not a pleasant subject to consider, one that often leads to recriminations rather than anything constructive to combat these developments.  Although life today is nowhere near as bad as it is depicted in Tevis' futuristic New York City, there are enough elements in common with contemporary society to make most readers pause and to reflect, perhaps rather loudly with a sigh, on certain trends in post-industrial societies.  Tevis' almost-prescient story contains a power today thirty years after its initial publication that makes it a true "masterwork" of dystopic fiction, one that deserves a place at the table beside 1984 and Brave New World.


  1. Mockingbird is one of my all time favourite novels. Since its publication 30 years or so ago, I've read it over and over again always with great enjoyment.

    It is a melancholy story, but has wonderful moments of humour. The writing is superb - the ending is one of the most moving and haunting I've ever read and for some reason reminds me of the last paragraph in The Great Gatsby

  2. Mockingbird is probably one of the best books I've ever read. I've read it over and over again. Thank you Walter Tevis.