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Mockingbird
Walter Tevis
Gollancz paperback £7.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

One of the lesser-known works to be republished in the SF masterworks series (it was previously unknown to this reviewer, at any rate), Walter Tevis' 1980 novel Mockingbird is a quiet, meditative piece; less of a story, really, than a portrait - a portrait of a world and certain of its inhabitants, and the issues they face and embody. In this future, machines run everything, and humans keep themselves to themselves - literally, because privacy and individuality laws demand it; and they spend much of their time in a drugged stupor anyway. Those who've had enough can always immolate themselves.

The most advanced machine in the world is Robert Spofforth, dean of faculties at New York University, who was programmed from a cloned human mind, and will remain forever in perfect function and forget nothing. The one thing Spofforth wants most, though, is what his programming will not allow him to do - to end his life. Paul Bentley is a man from Ohio who has taught himself to read - much to Spofforth's surprise, as reading was made illegal some time ago (it brings you too close to the minds of others) and has largely been forgotten about. Spofforth gives Bentley a job 'reading' silent movies, encouraging him to keep an audio diary. Whilst in New York, Bentley falls for a woman named Mary Lou, asks her to move in with him and teaches her to read; unfortunately for him, the last two of those are illegal and get him thrown in prison. He resolves to escape and return to Mary Lou...

The world Tevis depicts is haunting because he makes it only too clear how much of what we know has been lost in a relatively short time (about three centuries). Particularly in the novel's early stages, it seems that, almost every few pages, there's a jarring moment where the future's otherness becomes apparent. Sometimes it's funny, such as when Bentley comments that Buster Keaton's films would be funny were they not so sad; more often, though, the implications are more serious, as when we learn that people have forgotten what books and reading are, or that there was a time before television was invented, or even that there was a 'before' at all. Worse still is the profound sense of inertia: this world has no motion or direction, and is gradually wasting away. We lose our knowledge, the book suggests, at our peril.

Against this background, Mockingbird's central debate is perhaps whether it's good or bad to live at arm's length from others. Bentley and Spofforth can be seen to represent both sides of the argument (Mary Lou, though she has comparatively little to do in the novel, is key to the completion of the other protagonists' journeys). Bentley pushes against the status quo of privacy and individuality; his 'awakening' to the possibilities of life is very moving. Spofforth, as the representative of authority, is the villain of the piece to an extent - but he has his own, entirely understandable, reasons for acting as he does. Furthermore, Tevis shows that human contact isn't automatically a panacea, with his depiction of a religious community tucked away in an old shopping mall, living together but not really talking to one another, who don't seem much better off than some of the individuals living elsewhere.

All adds up to a complex, thought-provoking work. I'd like to thank Gollancz for re-issuing Mockingbird and rescuing it from potential continued obscurity. It's not a book we ought to lose.
Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

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