(1980 / 2007) Walter Tevis, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 279 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7915-1
This is a 2007 addition to Gollancz's excellent SF Masterworks series which itself is invaluable to new SF book collectors seeking to catch up as well as for more seasoned buffs wishing to plug gaps of missing greats: well sometimes you read a library or a friend's copy and then forget to buy the book. The other great thing about this series is that even someone who is a more average SF reader (such as myself), and not an expert, can find out a classic they never knew existed. This was the case for me with Mockingbird. When I saw it I thought, OK, it is a Gollancz SF Masterwork and so I really should read it even though I had never heard of the author. Suffice to say that indeed I should, I did, and I was not disappointed.
Set decidedly in the future, but in New York with familiar landmarks, Mockinbird tells of a dying human race as no children are being born. Other than this the future is almost a utopia in the sense that there is enough for everyone with robots and other automa taking care of people's needs. Furthermore there appears to be little conflict. What could be wrong? Well no books for a start. No meaningful social activity. No sense of achievement. No love. And no children. It is a depressingly dull world and not surprisingly some commit suicide in public and horrifically as if trying to shake on-lookers out of their complacent apathy. This future has echoes of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) with everyone in their place, everyone's needs taken care of, and soporifics to ease life along. It differs in that Huxley's future had a sense of vigour (albeit controlled) whereas in Mockingbird it is clear that society and (as we learn) indeed global society is literally dying.
From this bleak premise you may be surprised that that Mockingbird is laced with a dash of dark humour. For example, there is the unmanned factory busy producing nothing as an error in the production line results in the goods being faulty, so failing the end-of-line auto-quality inspection and therefore products are then reduced to raw materials for the factory to use again, and again, and again...
The story is largely told from the perspective of two people. First there is Robert Spofforth, once human and now an immortal robot who longs for death and senses that there is something wrong with the world. Then there is Paul Bentley a Professor of Mental Arts at Ohio University. He has a rare talent, he can read. So Spofforth commissions him to view old, recently re-discovered silent movies and tape record what it is the captions are saying. Then one day Paul sees a young woman at the zoo and a liaison begins that soon has illicit depths...
Mockingbird is profound in its depth yet it is told very simply, in an easy-to-read style. This tension between readability and depth of material adds to the sense of wonder: readers can rattle along, turning pages, yet there is always something new to spark the imagination slowing you down. I have not felt like this since reading the SF classics as a teenager. Having said that Tevis' prose is a lot better than some of the material I digested then. It is easy to see why Gollancz selected this as a Masterwork.
Now you may never have heard of Walter Tevis, especially as he is not exactly prolific. So who is he? As it happens, like his protagonist Paul Bentley, he was a Professor at Ohio University (United States) and his subject was English: this last explains his excellent prose. He is best known for being the author of The Hustler (1959), which then became a famous film (1961), and its sequel The Color of Money (1984). He did write a few SF shorts and there is even a collection of these Far From Home (1981) but unknowingly you may be aware of his science fiction novel The Man Who Fell To Earth (1963) which became a film starring David Bowie in 1976. Sadly he died in 1984 in his late fifties otherwise we might have had a few more novels. If Mockingbird is anything to go by we have undoubtedly missed out.
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