Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

Today I'm looking at an apocalyptic novel from 1980, Mockingbird. This book is set some three or four hundred years into a crumbling future where almost all labor is performed by robots. Humanity has been programmed to chase nothing but self-pleasure and the religion of ''self-development'', spending all their time strung out on drugs and enjoying pleasant hallucinations. Even basic social activity such as talking or spending time with other people is discouraged by this morality of self as violations of the rule of Privacy. Humanity has been shaped to be easily managed by the robots. Humans never ask questions, never venture outside the boundaries established for them, and don't seem to notice or care that the world is decaying around them.

The book itself focuses on three main characters. First we have, Robert Spofforth, the last remaining Make Nine robot and the only brain capable of understanding what's really going on in the world and unable to find the will to try and fix anything because humanity's become such a shadow of its former self. Next is Paul Bentley, a university professor who rediscovered the long lost art of reading and shows intellectual curiosity that no other human has shown for generations. Finally there is Mary Lou, a free-spirited woman who escaped from the institutional system when she was a teenager and has received an unorthodox education which makes her, much like Paul, the only curious person in decades.

I will say overall that my impression of this book is rather mixed. There are some really good passages and scenes in this book that capture how far everything including the intellectual state of humanity has decayed. There was an especially memorable scene of a toaster factory which, due to a defect in the assembly process, has not produced a working toaster in years. The robots running the factory are incapable of stopping to discover the fault in the assembly process so the factory has been producing defective toasters, and then recycling them into sheet metal to produce more defective toasters, for years. It's only when one of the characters visits the factory and removes the blockage in the system that the factory begins operating again. I just felt like that was an excellent example of how the world's systems are continuing onward with their tasks, which have become useless, without anyone ever asking why.

Or there's the example of a human asking for a certain breakfast side item at a restaurant, only to be told by the robot wait staff that that item only comes with a particular meal and since the machine for that meal is broken, they're unable to serve his request. This is despite an entire bin of the requested side item being available and in plain view. Neither the human nor the robot point this out or question why, if the machine for the main item is broken, the robots are bothering to make the side item. Instead, the human merely pops some pills and selects a different breakfast item. These are just two ways that Tevis illustrates a world that is almost Kafkaesque and reminds me in some ways of the 1985 film, Brazil.

Where this gets mixed for me is a combination of the almost anvilicious qualities of the points Tevis is trying to drive home and the explanation at the end of the book for why the world has ended up in the state it is. I can't really talk about the second one because it's a spoiler, but I will say I feel like it undermines a lot of the work that Tevis did in the rest of the book. As for the less than subtle morals, Tevis does a great deal of arguing in favor of reading and writing, as well as spending time interacting with people rather than retreating into a world of self-pleasure. Obviously these are all points which are fine on their own and I support them but even at less than three hundred pages, I feel like Tevis keeps worrying at these points over and over and over and it starts to feel needlessly repetitive. I've also taken up a hobby recently of noticing when authors make a point of saying how important reading is. Obviously I'm in no position to cast stones because I try to read as much as possible myself, but it seems a little funny that reading as an activity has so many authors working to defend it. Of course this is in their own self-interest, but it strikes me funny in a way. I don't know, maybe it's just me.

So there are a lot of things that I can appreciate in this book and Tevis does a really good job of setting up a universe that's decaying merely because nobody's thought to ask why it's decaying but how Tevis ultimately chooses to use this universe leaves me feeling a little disappointed. If any of this sounds interesting to you, I'd say go check it out.

- Kalpar

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