In a world where reading is illegal and forgotten, where art is non existent and children are no longer born - is there any reason left to keep living?
Mockingbird takes place in the distant future, in a time when the passing of time is no longer measured in years, but in colours. Although there are still humans, humanity has ceased to exist. For years all of the children have been raised in institutions, taught to value privacy and shun any meaningful contact with others. Families are forbidden. Casual sex is fine, but it is illegal for people to live together for more than one week, and children are no longer born. Paul and Mary Lou are among the youngest humans left, and both are near 30, although there is no way to know for certain their ages.
Humans perform menial jobs, and even then are unnecessary. Robots do most of the work of while humans stare at their wall sized television screens and exist and take one pill after another. Marijuana is not only legal, it would be considered very odd not to use drugs or smoke marijuana. The last of the human race spend their time stoned out of their heads. Even with so many drugs to encourage tranquillity, the meaningless of life becomes too much and self immolation is a common occurrence.
But while the humans have the comfort of suicide, Spofforth does not. He has been created of both flesh and circuitry, the most advanced feat of technology ever created as humanity lost its urge to create. He has been imprinted with the brain waves of a living human, but with the memories erased. He is capable of human emotions, but finds only sorrow. However, after all of the other Make Nine robots committed suicide, Spofforth, the last of his kind was programmed to be incapable of taking his own life. He will never age, never break down and never die. He is immortal and it is curse to him.
At the time of this story, robots run the world, but with no human creators or programmers left, things are beginning to break down. It won't matter, soon their will be no humans left. Perhaps then, perhaps with no humans left to serve, Spofforth will finally be able to die. As the most advanced robot on the planet, all the other robots defer to Spofforth, he is, in short omnipotent.
The end of man's dominion on earth seems imminent, until one man discovers and old film of a teacher instructing children in reading. He finds cards and reading primers himself and carefully teaches himself to read. When his path crosses that of what is most likely the only woman left on the planet who refuses to take the drugs, the fate of humanity may be changed.
This book was written in 1980. Walter Tevis was inspired to write this book after noticing the falling literacy levels of his students at Ohio University. I can only imagine that he must have been influenced by the disintegration of the family, the growth of government intervention into childcare , the widespread use of drugs and television addiction of the times as well. Of course all of these factors still exist today, only more so. Tevis's novel seems more believable today than it would have been 33 years ago - are we slowly moving towards the future of Mockingbird?
This is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. It depicts a sense of isolation more intense and more desperate than that of Omega Man. Although there are other people, there is no meaningful contact - each person is completely alone, either living in a private hell or so drugged they no longer care - if they ever did. these are all humans who have been raised by robots, without the warmth of a family. Love is an unknown concept and without history or books, no one knows that life could ever have been anything different. This book questions what it is to be human. Our art, literature and history contribute so much to who we are. Who we love also determines who we are, as does the family we are born into, and the families we create for ourselves.
Much is made of the loss of literacy as the cause for the decline of man, and I can see this as major factor. The loss of books has prevented people from learning about other times, from exchanging ideas etc.. Even more so though - I see the loss of the family as the death knell for humanity. I see so many parallels between this book and modern policies of government involvement in childcare for more and more hours and from earlier and earlier ages. I see government policies which are resulting in a loss of literacy and the gradual erosion of freedom while focusing on the cult of the individual. As to drugs - don't we push antidepressants for everything now? Take a pill and feel better. Or you can turn to the illegal drugs, which personally I believe are less harmful than the ones the government supplies. Not to take from those who genuinely need medicines but pills are thrown out like Smarties around here. The NHS is without a doubt the biggest drug pusher in the country. Thankfully we don't have robots able to take over everything yet - but without a doubt this is the most frightening book I have ever read. Things may not be as extreme as in Mockingbird - but I do believe we are headed in that direction.
Recently I've been reading Gollanz's 'Masterworks' series - both their Crime series and their Fantasy and Sci-Fi collections. I've been put off of a number of the sci-fi novels I've read recently because they are extremely complicated (either that, or I'm really dense!) and generally have been too wordy and difficult to visualise. Ringworld and The Stars My Destination are prime examples of this. So going into Mockingbird I was slightly worried. How wrong I was!
In a bleak future landscape where the human race has forgotten how to read or write, humans and robots co-exist. Humans are in decline and are drugged into submission through the robots by watching sex and death shows. Even New York is crumbling and grinding to a halt. No one knows how to fix anything or repair the repair robots - it looks like the end of humanity as we know it. However, there is one man who begins to learn how to read and explore culture - but will he be lauded or imprisoned?
It truly was a fantastic read and at that an amazing science fiction novel. There have been many books in the science fiction masterworks collection that I really haven't got into at all. Most of them usually have very convoluted and 'difficult' premises that are hard to get into, Ringworld being a prime example. Mockingbird however is a novel that is easy to read and instantly engrossing. This is mainly down to the premise of a crumbling world, very close to the end of humanity as we know it.
Its amazing that this book hasn't been made into a film before. Its just waiting to be rediscovered by some amazing director like Guillermo Del Torro or Peter Jackson, someone visionary enough to do justice to the landscape that the book is set in. The image of a rotting Manhattan, a place where no one reads or talks to each other, a place where buildings and machinery are breaking down with no one having the foggiest as to how to repair them. A place where there are no children, only mechanical men devoid of emotions just waiting around for the human race to become extinct.
I loved this book and rate it highly. If you want to read a great sci-fi novel - then get this one.