‘Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.’-Walter Tevis
Did you watch the recent Netflix series about a brilliant female chess player: The Queen’s Gambit? I watched it and really enjoyed it. It is based on the book of the same name by the American author Walter Tevis. I’d never heard of Tevis before the series, but I did know the title of his most famous science fiction story: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). I’ve seen the film starring David Bowie but I haven’t read the book. After reading Tevis’s novel Mockingbird (1980), I now want to read all of his books including The Hustler (1959) and The Color of Money (1984)–made famous by the Paul Newman-starring movies.
Mockingbird is a powerful novel of a future world where humans are dying. Those that survive spend their days in a narcotic bliss or choose a quick suicide rather than slow extinction. Humanity’s salvation rests with an android who has no desire to live, and a man and a woman who must discover love, hope, and dreams of a world reborn.
This is a completely subjective review from me, as most of my reviews are. I want to stress that here. Sometimes a book just hits all the right buttons at the right time. It doesn’t mean it’s the greatest book ever written. But for me, it was the perfect book at the perfect time. I absolutely loved Mockingbird, Walter Tevis’s little-known science fiction novel from 1980.
It opens with Spofforth walking up the middle of Fifth Avenue toward the Empire State Building. Spofforth is an android. He is whistling as he walks. Fifth Avenue is deserted except for the chirping of insects coming from the grass and tall weeds growing through the cracked sidewalks. The android stops outside the entrance to the Empire State Building and the doorway speaks:
“Closed for repairs,” the voice said to Spofforth as he approached.-Walter Tevis, Mockingbird
“Shut up and open,” Spofforth said. And then, “I am Robert Spofforth. Make Nine.”
“Sorry, sir,” the door said. “Couldn’t see…”
“Yes. Open up. And tell the express elevator to be down for me.”
The door was silent for a moment. Then it said, “Elevator’s not working, sir.”
“Shit,” Spofforth said. And then, “I’ll walk up.”
Robert Spofforth is a “Make Nine” android, a top model. He is in great condition, strong and powerful, but he wants to die. He makes his way to the top of the Empire State Building with the desire to jump off. Unfortunately, due to his programming he can’t do it. If he had tear ducts, he would cry.
What a start! I was pulled into the story from these opening pages and immediately wanted to know more about Spofforth, the suicidal android. Where was he from? Why did he want to die? I also wanted to find out what had happened to New York.
In Mockingbird’s dystopian future, the dwindling population live lives of drugged-up “bliss”. “Quick sex is best” is a popular phrase, and normal human contact is considered taboo. Family values have been all but forgotten. No babies are being born and privacy is valued above all else. For those who want out, a popular option is self-immolation, made pain-free by the surplus of easily available opiates. It’s a frightening yet worryingly plausible future.
“My upbringing, like that of all the other members of my Thinker Class, had made me into an unimaginative, self-centered and drug-addicted fool. Until learning how to read I had lived in a whole underpopulated world of self-centered, drug-addicted fools, all of us living by our Rules of Privacy in some crazy dream of Self-Fulfillment.” –Paul Bentley–Walter Tevis
There are three main characters in Mockingbird. The android, Robert Spofforth, is the dean of New York University. We are next introduced to Paul Bentley, a teacher from Ohio who calls Spofforth with news that shocks the android:
“I taught myself how. I can read.”
Bentley wants to start teaching “reading” at the university. Instead, Spofforth gives him a job decoding the written titles of ancient silent movies.
“No. I’m sorry. But we should not teach reading at this university.”
So, we have Robert Spofforth, a suicidal android who refuses to teach reading at his university. It appears that reading has become a lost art. We also have a deserted, overgrown Fifth Avenue and building doors that can talk. It’s all starting to feel a bit dystopian-future, isn’t it?
Not long after Paul starts working at the university, he meets our third main character, Mary Lou, during his lunchbreak. After telling her about reading she becomes keen to learn the skill from him, and the fascinating journey of this story begins.
Mockingbird is a book that made me fall in love with reading again. As Paul and Mary Lou rediscover the joy of reading, I was inspired to seek out some of the stories and poems referenced in the narrative. I have always enjoyed reading but this book made me appreciate how important it is to me. Imagine a world where nobody reads anymore. If you ever feel like you have lost your enthusiasm for reading, please read this book.
Tevis has written a very human story. It’s also a very moving story. I have only touched on some of the themes of this book because I want to keep this review short. Additionally, I don’t want to reveal too much of the story.
Walter Tevis’s Mockingbird gets my highest recommendation. The perfect book at the perfect time for me.
Thanks for reading!