Book Review: Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (1980)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

William Tevis’ Mockingbird (1980) is a paean to the power of reading. Possessed by an encyclopedic adoration for silent films and books of all genres, Tevis creates a rich textual substate in which his characters pin together the true nature of their world. For more on the situation in Tevis’ life that prompted him to write Mockingbird–his experiences teaching and his own attempts to defeat alcoholism–and his relationship to science fiction, check out James Sallis’ review in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The World

In a rapidly depopulating world, the last humans live a medicated life. Successful indoctrination programs of privacy and individuality with catch phrases like “Don’t ask-relax” (24) and “Alone is best” (26), have deprived the masses from the desire to learn or interact with each other. Paul and Mary Lou might be the “last generation of children, ever” (32). Tevis lays out the reasons for depopulation as follows: “1. Fears of overpopulation 2. The perfection of sterilization techniques 3. The disappearance of the family 4. The widespread concern with “inner” experiences 5. A loss of interest in children 6. A widespread desire to avoid responsibilities” (145).

Robots have taken increasingly taken over the roles previously held by humans. Robotic animals, “those stupid, leapfrogging iguanas” (29), and children populate the zoos. Most humans spend their days in a pharmaceutical haze while robots, increasingly broken and malfunctioning, attempt to cater to their needs. When the sad reality peers through, humans commit suicide by self-immolation.

Cast in Order of Appearance

Robert Spofforth: The most sophisticated robot in existence. The novel opens with Spofforth contemplating hurling himself from the Empire State building. The rest of the Mark Nines have long since committed suicide but his programming prevents him from doing so. He speculates that without him “New York might have no longer functioned at all” with no “really effective humans around” (63). Instead, he spends his time trying to find ways of “repairing computers that no human” knew how to repair and that “no robots had been programmed to understand” (11). He’s the last operating Detector tasked with regulating the behavior of the few remaining humans and serves as the Dean of Faculties at the moribund New York University.

Spofforth–possessed by fragments of “old dreams, yearnings, anxieties” from his creator (5) and a life he cannot forget–attempts to reenact a human delusion of domestic contentment with Mary Lou.

Paul Bentley: Born in Ohio, Paul might be the last human (or robot) in the United States who can read. He arrives in New York City with a dream of teaching others. But teaching others to read is forbidden. Spofforth tasks him instead with reading the intertitles on silent films and dictating them into a recorder. Soon the scenes and interactions within the world of film give him a way to understand the lives of others and the dystopic shades of the modern era.

Paul encounters Mary Lou in the zoo. He immediately realizes that she possesses an intelligence far greater than his own. And she dares to confront a robot and proclaim to a shocked Paul “the Detectors don’t detect anymore” (41). Paul decides to teach Mary Lou to read.

Mary Lou should have been exterminated at birth or killed upon discovery of her intelligence. Spofforth had never heard of “a human being that intelligent before” (67). Mary Lou escaped from her indoctrination center and lived with an older man who remembered fragments of the world before. He provided her with a unique view of the world and purpose of robots–to obey humans. At the time of her fortuitous meeting with Paul, she’d lived alone in the zoo filled with robotic animals and children living off sandwiches provided by a malfunctioning robot.

She moves in with Paul and learns how to read. But Spofforth has other ideas and interrupts their peaceful existence. He’s the last Detector around and they’re guilty of co-habitation and reading. Paul is sent off to prison and Spofforth forces her to reenact a sad charade of married life.

Final Thoughts: Relearning the World Through Silent Image and Intertitles

“But after all those films I know what it is: I am in love with Mary Lou” (94). Paul’s systematic reading of the intertitles of silent films provide a window into human interactions and happiness that existed in the past. He starts to understand how dystopic his own world has become. Relationships start to take on meaning–for example his love of Mary Lou. Catch phrases like “Alone is best” drilled into his head bring sadness as people in the world of the films “seem to feel so much for one another” (26).

The novel contains an almost encyclopedic tapestry of silent film references–from famous titles like King Kong (1933) to random sequences a new viewer would remember, including a horse with a hat in Speedy (1928). I’m unsure if they’re all real silent films as I could not identify a few of the films despite having the title and the main (real) actress.

Mockingbird is a love letter to the power of reading and learning. The novel is filled with references to books of all genres–from guides to flora and fauna to mechanical repair. Paul and Mary Lou are possessed by a desire to consume everything within reach. Despite the deep sadness, there’s an intense hope that fills the interactions of Paul and Mary Lou. Paul’s a tender character possessed by a “pathetically serious” (99) outlook on life who cares about and assists the lost souls he encounters–for example, how Annabel Baleen’s community ignores all the hard work she puts in providing for them.

There are instances where Tevis spells out the reasons for societal decline that diminish the power of the scenes and images he creates. An odd dichotomy emerges, past media enriches while contemporary media creates dystopia. That said, I am eager to track down the rest of Tevis’ science fiction including his lesser known The Steps of the Sun (1983) and short fiction collected in Far From Home (1981).

Highly Recommended.

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36 thoughts on “Book Review: Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (1980)

  1. Yeah, this is one of Tevis’s good ones, along with THE HUSTLER (not SF) and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH.

    Couple of points —

    [1] You mention Spofforth’s being ‘possessed by fragments of “old dreams, yearnings, anxieties” from his creator’. You might have stressed more clearly that this is literally the case and it’s what renders him — and Spofforth is a ‘him,’ with a far larger, more fully realized soul than, maybe, any of the humans left in his benighted world — such a truly tragic figure. The ultimate human achievement in terms of robot construction, his mind is literally based to some extent on a recording of his creator’s mind, and he has frustrating, fragmentary echoes of happy human life, which is why he forces Mary Lou to enact the charade of marriage — which only frustrates him more, because for him humanity is unattainable .

    I note you’ve avoiding spoiling the connection between Spofforth’s tragedy and the world’s increasing depopulation. It’s a strong reveal when it comes. Read the book, people.

    [2] The writing felt like first-draft a little too much for my taste around the halfway to three-quarters mark. This is just something Tevis did. QUEEN’S GAMBIT, for all its recent media success, is sloppy in the same way all through. I guess he was an old-school 1950s-60s guy who banged out a first draft if he didn’t have “writer’s block” and sometimes he didn’t revise enough.

    Conversely, absolutely beautiful writing on the novel’s last page. I have the novel on kindle was tempted to copy and paste it in here.

    But if I did that it would give the game away. Again, read the book if you haven’t.

    • Hello Mark,

      Thoughts on his short SF short stories? Those are my target at the moment.

      [1] My review definitely is skewed (as they always are) to the elements that I found most interesting (even in the plot summary portion). But I take your point that I should have spelled out the mechanisms of his constructed mind more clearly. I felt myself wanting to get to the Mary Lou and Paul sections over his. But yes, I found him a very tragic figure unable to escape the forces of his creation.

      [2] The last third does slip into infodump territory with lengthy passages about the evils of contemporary society. Media satire is great in my book (I have a media series obviously) but it felt a bit by-the-numbers in this instance. Which is why I hit the book down from “Masterpiece.” If I’m remembering the details of the Sallis review I link (which has far more explanation about the novel’s genesis), this was the product that appeared after a long period of writer’s block and it’s the parallels between Paul and him that I find most compelling vs. his societal critique. According to Sallis, he wrote little for 13 years after the publication of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) so Mockingbird really does evoke his own return to writing.

      • JB: Thoughts on his short SF short stories? Those are my target at the moment.

        I’ve only read a couple. Those two struck me as very slight 1950s-style SF magazine filler that definitely didn’t excite me to pursue the FAR FROM HOME anthology. Check out one for yourself —

        ‘The Big Bounce’ from GALAXY, 1958.

        It’s a very thin gimmick story — a gimmick that, nevertheless, Robert Sheckley (say) might have found interesting and amusing Sheckleyesque things he could do. Tevis couldn’t.

        I also read a Tevis short in an old F&SF from ’58. IIRC, the POV character was a manual flunky who worked around a swimming pool and started having oceanic-type dreams. One morning he goes in to work and there’s a whale in the swimming pool. End of five-page story. Meh.

        It could just be that Tevis’s talent wasn’t for the SF short story. It’s not an accident that two of the most anthologized SF shorts are Clarke’s ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ and ‘The Star,’ for example. It really helps with the SF short to have a really strong idea that the writer is smart enough to have thought of before everyone else, to get in and make the point in 5,000-7,000 words, and get out.

        Tevis was not that kind of writer on the evidence I’ve seen. I’d be more interesting in his mainstream stories from the 1950s, based on his having cracked high-paying markets like COLLIER’S and ESQUIRE out the gate, and on THE HUSTLER, which if I were ever an American fiction-writing teacher I’d use as a set book alongside Leonard Gardner’s FAT CITY and Denis Johnson’s ANGELS.

        JB: The last third does slip into infodump territory with lengthy passages about the evils of contemporary society. Media satire is great in my book (I have a media series obviously) but it felt a bit by-the-numbers in this instance.

        Yet it’s the kind of material that, say, Gene Wolfe in his prime could have made sing. (See Wolfe’s ‘The Eyeflash Miracles,’ forex). That section needed another pass through Tevis’s typewriter.

        Never mind. As a whole, the novel is a palpable hit.

  2. I had no idea Tevis had written much besides the man who fell to earth, but this sounds very interesting, and quite strange. It’s not often silent films play a large part in a book I read.
    Possible typo: “And she dares to say that confront a robot and proclaim to a shocked Paul…” maybe delete “say that”?

    • Thank you. At this point, I’m a one-man show and typos probably exist in every post… And until I have an editor it will simply go with the territory! hah. As I reread and reread my reviews and after a bit I end up identifying most of them.

      Yes, it’s a fascinating work. He gained a lot more popular attention recently as he wrote the source material for The Queen’s Gambit (2020) Netflix show.

  3. I recently discovered Walter Tevis and wondered why he is not more popular. Have not read this one. Thanks for the review.

  4. I read this one this past summer. This love letter to reading is really an amazing feat, even with the sometime-clunky prose a few commenters mention. But as the awareness of the ability to read and Paul’s passion to share his newfound love drives the narrative and plot, I responded in an emotional manner that rarely happens when I’m reading SF. And maybe that’s just because reading is so important to me. This book is, despite its faults, really amazing.

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