Published by Victor Gollancz Ltd on 1980
The future is a grim place in which the declining human population wanders, drugged and lulled by electronic bliss. It's a world without art, reading and children, a world where people would rather burn themselves alive than endure. Even Spofforth, the most perfect machine ever created, cannot bear it and seeks only that which he cannot have - to cease to be. But there is hope for the future in the passion and joy that a man and woman discover in love and in books, hope even for Spofforth. A haunting novel, reverberating with anguish but also celebrating love and the magic of a dream.
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Mockingbird is everything I love in science-fiction: it’s smart, it’s epic, and it makes you think. This classic Sci-Fi novel takes us to a bleak futuristic New York in which machines replaced human labour force, from the bus driven by a telepathic AI to the universities managed by robot deans. What’s left for humanity is entertainment, synthetic food, drinks, drugs, and quick sex. However, citizens became strangely apathetic and suicidal under their own Privacy Rules: you can’t look at someone in the eyes, ask questions (“Don’t ask – relax”), have a lengthy conversation or – worst! – a relationship (“Quick sex is best”). Also, no one has read a book for a few centuries: no one remembers how to.
The genius of Walter Tevis is to slowly unveil what is actually going on in Mockingbird. As you get further into the story, the situation appears in a new and even more frightening light. At first, it looks like the classic trope: men invented machine and, with nothing left to occupy themselves, got lazy and bored to death, like the pathetic spaceship humans in Wall-E. However, things are not quite as they seem.
Here is Paul Bentley, our hero: a dull and uninquisitive individual who accidentally stumbled upon some school books. Paul decides to learn to read and write on his own and finally gets a new job in which he must read and record the text displayed in ancient silent movies. At the same time, he practices his writing by keeping a diary. Both activities soon gives him a sense of time, memories, and a means to organize his thoughts. He is becoming observant and inquisitive. Are people really happy? Who is in charge in New York City? Why, when and how did people create the Rules? What for? And what’s off with those children in the zoo?
A lot is going on in Mockingbird, but to me this is the most fascinating part of the book: the birth of Paul as a human being. The growth of Paul as a person is spectacular: he learns danger, conflicts and emotions. He investigates, learns, rebels. He finds out. He fights back. You just can’t stop reading till you know everything.
All of those books – even the dull and nearly incomprehensible ones – have made me understand more clearly what it means to be a human being. And I have learned from the sense of awe I at times develop when I feel in touch with the mind of another, long-dead person and know that I am not alone on this earth. There have been others who have felt as I feel and who have, at times, been able to say the unsayable.” (Bentley’s diary)
I really loved Mockingbird. It became one of my favourite science-fiction novel as soon as I finished it. Mockingbird is timeless, even though it was first published in 1980 it could have been written yesterday. It’s incredibly immersive, the world is fascinating, and the plot is frankly epic. It will make you think about the value of knowledge and human interactions as well as the place of machines and artificial intelligence in our modern societies.