Review of Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
by Walter Tevis
Many of the most seminal dystopian novels are chilling for the extent to which they depict a “new normal” of human existence. By this I mean that these novels don’t just portray people oppressed or living under the thumb of a ruling class or technologically-imposed social structure—no, the best dystopian novels create a world in which people are happy, or at least satisfied, with the new status quo. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 all do this to some extent.
Fahrenheit 451 is particularly relevant in this case. It shares with Mockingbird the consideration that literacy is a cornerstone of our current human civilization. Now, in the former book, literacy was allowed—it was reading books that was banned; in Mockingbird, Walter Tevis takes things one step further and has humanity forget how to read or write at all. Whereas Bradbury preserves family structures, Tevis creates a collectivist, dysfunctional future in which people grow up as alone as possible while still together. They spend their days lulled into contentment by drugs and mood-altering videos until the emptiness and pointlessness of this existence compels some to unremarked, unmourned suicide. Meanwhile, the smartest robot left on Earth keeps things in New York humming along—but he too wants to die.
It’s all kind of a downer, really.
As far as dystopias go, Mockingbird’s is relatively plausible. Much of the technology that Tevis posits centuries from now when writing in 1980 is around, in some form, already. It’s believable that humans would find the prospect of a less troubling, more internalized life more attractive than the conflict of having to interact with one another. The idea that our civilization could be reduced to drug addicts managed by ill-maintained robots is troubling, but not all that far-fetched.
I'm a little confused about where all the people from the developing world are in this book. Spofforth talks a lot about “world” population and population controls. Technology creates dystopias through the unequal distribution of technology (and, therefore, power). Yet this scenario contains within it a paradox that would prevent that dystopia from becoming absolute: there are many places that do not have the technological infrastructure to succumb to the dystopian visions these stories depict. These stories tend to gloss over what happens to the billions of people not affected by this dystopia. Did they all get killed off? Or are there free humans happily living outside the United States, blissfully unaware of what’s going on there—or totally aware and very glad they aren’t addicts like Americans?
Like its setting, Mockingbird’s plot is also pretty decent. There are some standard “rediscovering civilization” tropes, with Bentley stumbling across a proper library for the first time, or reading the Bible, or making ironic remarks about how weird the way things used to be seem to him. Tevis plays it as slightly humorous for the reader but deadly serious for Bentley and Mary Lou—there is a very real, palpable sense of loss and anguish over how much humanity has forgotten. Thank goodness for books! As someone who is a voracious reader, and always has been, I couldn’t imagine being illiterate. But Mockingbird really underscores just how we take literacy for granted. Even if you personally don’t read a lot of fiction, you’re around enough people who do that you absorb a lot—we call this herd literacy (and by “we” I mean “I just made that up”). And there’s much more going on here than just Bentley’s quest for literacy, of course. There is plenty of commentary on everything from the nature of family, of privacy, of love, to the ethics around building artificial intelligences.
At times the plot let me down in the sense that I was kind of expecting a little more from it. Spofforth is a quixotic character. I half-expected him to be a bit more of a Xanatos mastermind, in the God-Emperor of Dune sense, if you catch my drift. But he seemed pretty haphazard with it all. And in the end, although I sympathized with him, I thought that Tevis could have exploited all his potential to better effect.
That’s something that generalizes to a great deal of the book, actually. Mockingbird has a great setting and a decent plot, but its narration and pacing utterly killed my interest. The narration jumps between Bentley, Spofforth, and Mary Lou. The chapters are uneven and often quite lengthy, though, and the narrative style is as dry as a package of irradiated lima beans. I much prefer it when books that take this route leave off on cliffhangers to keep you wanting to return to each character’s perspective as soon as possible.
So I guess I can see why Mockingbird is not better known or celebrated as some other dystopian novels from this era. It’s a shame, in a way, because it makes such great points. This could be a perfectly adequate movie to catch on AMC one day along the same lines as The Postman. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to recommend it (it really does feel like a slog most of the time), but it’s got interesting ideas.