Saturday, 1 December 2012

Walter Tevis: Mockingbird (1980)

Edition: Gollancz, 2007
Review number:1468

The best known novels by Walter Tevis are famous as films: The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money - a trio which certainly demonstrates versatility. As a genre writer, he is also known for Mockingbird, here reprinted as one of Gollancz's "SF Masterworks" series.

One of TS Eliot's most famous lines, known to many who have no idea who wrote it (one online quotation search engine bizarrely attributes it to actor Vin Diesel) is "This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper". It is almost a one sentence summary of Mockingbird, and is quoted at one point towards the end of the novel. Perhaps "human civilization" would be more apt than "world", but otherwise the mood and fit of the line is pretty much perfect.

The setting of Mockingbird is at the end, then, of the human history. With all tasks handled by robots, humans have sunk into a listless, drugged apathy, almost entirely of their own (or their ancestors') making. The main characters include one of the last, most advanced, robots to be made, named Spofforth, and one of the youngest remaining humans, named Bentley, who eventually realises the meaning of the demolition of his school once he and the rest of his year group leave: there are no more children.

The third major character is a woman named Mary Lou, who has been living an outsider's life in New York Zoo, inhabited otherwise only by the robots who manage it and who pretend to be children visiting - and which may well also be many of the exhibits. She has been surviving by eating sandwiches made available by a bug in the management system: a robot is provided with them to fill a vending machine, but always has five more than fit, and no instructions for what to do with them, so is effectively immobilised until May Lou takes them from it. She has managed somehow to escape from the system and is therefore free from the drugs taken by every other human. The robots have seen that humans are happier in general without high intelligence or dramatic events, so the drugs make their takers less excitable and less clever.

Once this is established, a strange thing happens, the most important event in the story, and one which almost knocks the whole novel off its mournful path. Spofforth denounces Bentley as a criminal - a true accusation, for Bentley, having worked out how to read from a book, teachers Mary Lou, and this is a crime because reading can distract from the bland happiness which humans are supposed to experience. Bentley is sent to prison, and Spofforth moves himself and Mary Lou into an abandoned apartment, following a rather atavistic prompting of a hidden part of his mind, which was not constructed but is based on a recording of the mind of a human being.

With the end of reading, of education, there is so much that people just don't know any more. Like a prehistoric inland dweller who has never seen the ocean, Bentley comments: "I did not know sea water was undrinkable. No one had ever told me." This, on top of the general apathy brought by the drugs, is really what is bringing the end; things break down, and no one knows how to fix them or how to get a robot to fix them, and no one cares to do either, anyway. Temporary measures, such as the one which added contraceptives to the drugs to curb population increase, are set in place, but then no one remembers to rescind them afterwards.

The title of the novel comes from a caption in a silent film watched by Bentley, who is put to recording the words of such films as no one can read the captions any more: "Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the forest". Apparently, the Northern Mockingbird does indeed live and sing at the edge of forests during their breeding season, but Tevis' intention is to say something about his theme, but I found it hard to choose between several different interpretations of the phrase. The lives which are led by Bentley, Spofforth, and Mary Lou could be said to be a mockery of those who are living normal lives in the forest, and the mockingbird a symbolic outsider; the odd relationship between Spofforth and Mary Lou, while she is pregnant, is a mockery of twentieth century city life (as well as referencing the breeding season of the bird); or it could refer to Tevis' role as a commentator on the negative sides of the human drive to increase comfort and settle for the banal in experience as safer than living on the edge.

This is the kind of novel I would point to as a counter to those who think nothing with a science fiction genre label on it can be literary, or discuss real issues. Dealing with apathy, depression, and suicide as it does, Mockingbird is hardly cheerful reading, but is definitely recommended. My rating: 9/10.

No comments: