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.
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).
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