Mockingbird • 1980 • Dystopian novel by Walter Tevis

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis:  Human culture is degrading heavily in the 25th century. No one can read or write anymore. People use narcotics to concentrate on themselves, talking to authors or showing emotions is considered an unacceptable intrusion in others’ privacy. There are no children anymore leading to an extinction within a generation. Many people set themselves afire, mostly in groups. 

Robert Spofforth is the best android ever built, a Make Nine type, knowing each and everything in New York. He’d like to kill itself, but his programming forbids him jumping off the Empire State Building. 

The second point of view follows Paul Bentley, a teacher from Ohio engaged by Spofforth, because he taught himself reading. He isn’t allowed to teach others reading at the university but is asked to convert the written titles of silent movies to audio recording.

Lastly, there is highly intelligent and attractive Mary Lou. Paul meets her in the zoo, and she wants to learn reading after he explains to her what that means. Well, that, and “Quick sex is best.

The story really unfolds when Paul is arrested and sent to prison in the Carolinas. A new world opens up to him.

Review: Yes, you’ve heard from this author. Maybe just recently by the Netflix adaption of his Queens Gambit? Or the 1986 Scorsese film Color of Money featuring Paul Norman and Tom Cruise (with a complete different story line than the novel)?

Mockingbird is a neglected SF novel by this great author and I have to thank my blog buddy Wakizashi bringing it to my attention in January this year. 

A book with reading as a central topic is fixing me up of course. But that is only one motivation. Tevis is highly innovative and comes up with a firework of ideas nicely integrated into a story which doesn’t let you put down the book. One could read it in one long sitting, as it’s only some 280 pages long, a very short novel indeed. The story shows several twists and different settings. It starts in depopulated New York, changes to the prison, and follows swiftly the long way back through several human colonies with his buddy thought bus. 

On the other hand there are some elements which simply wouldn’t work. Take for example the silent film celluloids which simply wouldn’t be playable in the 25th century anymore. From a technology point of view, most of the novel feels more like written in the 1960s than in 1980. The publication follows a long break in Tevis’s writing. All those tape recordings, fleshy androids etc. don’t transfer well into our current view of the world. But that doesn’t hurt too much and the novel is a real joy to read.

I love that Gollancz has re-published this work as part of the SF Masterworks series (see my reviews here). 

Pitch-perfect characters, an ever rolling plot, some insights in civilization, and the fascination of reading. What more would you like to see in a dystopian novel?

Meta: goodreads. isfdb.

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17 Responses to Mockingbird • 1980 • Dystopian novel by Walter Tevis

  1. bormgans says:

    I´ve heard good thing about this from people outside the SF fandom too. Thanks for reminding me, good write-up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    ´The man who fell to earth´ is another of his classics…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a supremely depression book – but interesting. I have his “the man who fell to earth” lined up for next month. Tevis was a notorious alcoholic and most of his books are secretly about addiction and depression.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      Strangely, it felt light, though there was a huge load of depressive narration in it. Can’t explain it, but there was always hope, through a cat, through the relation or a poem.


  4. Wakizashi says:

    I’m really glad you enjoyed this! You know how it often goes, one man’s “Dune” is another man’s “Fifty Shades of Gray” 🙂 I agree that is feels deceptively “light”, almost simple at times. But there is so much going on below the surface. Depressing in parts, yet surprisingly optimistic. It left me with a really positive feeling. Thanks for the shout-out!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    I have his Queen’s Gambit on my list, and thanks to you and Wakizashi, also this Mockingbird. It’s so interesting that the mood of times is coming up again and again – we’ve been all conditioned to think what’s the norm and what’s outside of it. The “kann man” of every cultural epoch is different.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      Who‘d have thought that running around masked would be the norm in Europe? Cultural accepted behavior can change so swiftly!
      I didn’t believe the projection completely because I think that one really needs social contacts as a pillar against depression. And that no kids are there is hard to take in. But in the end, we can be manipulated far too easily.
      As for Queen‘s Gambit there are voices telling me to prefer the Netflix adaption.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember reading Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth after watching the movie with David Bowie, but I never read anything else by him: this might be a book suited to my tastes… Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. piotrek says:

    Interesting, there is a cetain feel to early SF, technologies of imagined future we already overtook some time ago… if the novel is great, it’s not a big problem, if it’s only good, it’s harder for me to enjoy it.

    But I do love the cover! And I need two more Gollancz books to fill out a shelf, so I’ll think about it 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      Do you have Ammonite? That would be another good one.
      I‘m often sensitive to bad technology in SF. It‘s far better if left out completely or like a magical device. A good sample are Le Guin’s Hainish novels with their anthological focus and the Ansible as communication device.
      In the case of Mockingbird, technology is mostly bad. I liked it nonetheless because of its other qualities.

      Liked by 1 person

      • piotrek says:

        Oh, yes, you did review it, claiming it has a le guinish feel… that does sound promising. It is on my very long list of To-Be-Bought 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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