Book review: Mockingbird 

: Is there a future for humanity? A future where we can continue to be the way we are? Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird, a pathbreaking novel in the science fiction genre, explores this thought through a poignant tale of man, woman and machine.

Walter Tevis | Science Fiction | Published 1980

What does it mean to be human? Is it the small things, the small traits like enjoying the sunlight and the feel of water on one’s skin? Or is it the bigger, more serious stuff, like the ability to think about ourselves, our space, our purpose?

These are some questions that Walter Tevis brings up in his work, Mockingbird, along with the realisation that we don’t really know what makes us human.

Set in the far, far future, in a dystopian world where humans live a drugged, soporific life that’s controlled by robots, nothing is natural anymore – not even food – and every human instinct is muted through drugs, Mockingbird is, in a way, a prediction of one of the many possible futures of mankind. Humans are not allowed cohabitation, arts, reading, or any entertainment except programmed television. Education has been replaced by programmed instructions to reduce humanity to vacant bodies. 

Mandatory Politeness indicates that they cannot communicate amongst themselves or have eye contact. Individualism, Inwardness, and Privacy are the rules. In this world, Spofforth is a “Make Nine” robot, the most advanced of the kind – the robot was created by copying the consciousness of a human being and imprinting it onto a metal brain. Spofforth is a unique Make Nine: the flaws of his human “parent” have been erased in his manufacturing. Therefore he is a perfect machine. But, having a human consciousness, he’s near-human in his thought processes – which means he is aware of death; and he craves nothing more than death. He’s been alive, awake 23 hours a day for centuries and he runs pretty much everything in New York.

Amidst this arrives a man (Paul) who says he can read. He’s taught himself how to. Spofforth instructs him to watch silent movies, read the subtitles, and provide transcripts. Paul meets a woman (Mary Lou) who’s rebelling against the senseless destruction of humanity and has stopped taking the ‘compulsory’ drugs. These drugs contain fertility inhibitors which ensure that there will be no more humans in the world after a generation or so. Against the law, Paul and Mary begin to live together, learn to read, write and piece together the history of humanity and what existed before this monochrome dullness that passes for humankind in the present.

The joy they discover in reading, their experience of music, their understanding of emotions, friendship, and kinship give the reader a jolt because one realises that we’re taking these things for granted. How often do we appreciate these beautiful, joyous aspects of being human? Paul is utterly enamoured with the process of reading and steals books wherever he can find them. (It’s illegal to read, no more books are created and the ones that exist have been stored for destruction).

The book dwells deeply on existential questions, free will, and emotions. It roots us in our present – are we slowly, inexorably moving towards such a future due to our obsession with Individualism, and inability to coexist in healthy communities? Will we be in a world without children soon, as having children is getting replaced by other pursuits for more and more people? Are we denying our basic human reactions by labelling them as illnesses, and creating a generation of soporific people who cannot get anxious, cannot get upset, who never feel anything?

What are we doing to create our future? 

Slow, intense and engrossing, this book was published in 1980, and I cannot think of a better time to read this than now.

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