Mockingbird by Walter Tevis (SF Masterworks) (book review).

March 5, 2022 | By | Reply More

Walter Tevis (1928-1984) is perhaps better known for the 1963 SF novel, ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, which became the 1976 film starring David Bowie, this novel, ‘Mockingbird’ was originally released in 1980.

There are books you start and suddenly realise you are reading a classic. ‘Mockingbird’ had that feel from the opening pages when we are introduced to Spofforth, a Make Nine android organic in everyway except sex organs and a need to eat with limited memories based off a reduced human pattern. Oh, he’s also black and unlikely to age anytime soon. His career finally leads him to being the dean of New York University when he receives a message from someone who claims he can read.

This is self-taught reader Paul Bentley, until you realise his reading age is around infant but slowly learning. He shows how good he is by reading the placards in silent movies and you slowly realise what kind of world they are living in. Spofforth employs him to do translate film placards from these movies onto tape and a place in the basement. The androids are slowly replacing the human population, not by design or revolution but purely by job requirements as they are lacking in these skills.

The human population smokes pot and very subdued, doing what they are told, assuming they care. Those that do, kill themselves by incineration. Bentley finds a book called a ‘dictionary’ and slowly works out what it does. He visits the local zoo and meets Mary Lou Warne, whom he gets to care for and eventually gets to the basement. They both stop smoking pot and stupor pills and read together and Bentley discovers she is much smarter than him at this and learns writing even faster.

The only problem is reading is illegal and Spofforth reveals his other function and arrests Bentley and has him imprisoned in a shoe factory far away. A pregnant Mary Lou finds herself as Spofforth’s companion of sorts as he tries to find his own place in the world but reveals he cannot die before the humans are all dead. This is getting close to spoiler although Mary Lou’s solution is a lot simpler.

Meanwhile, Bentley escapes from prison and with limited resources doesn’t really know where he is going other than following the beach and has his own adventures getting back to New York.

Tevis wrote convincing characters and his presentation of a dying New York comes out when he shakes you from what is going on in regular life. Calling this future reality post-apocalypse would be wrong. This isn’t the result of any war but passing control to robots for protection and we’re seeing the end rule. ‘Mockingbird’ underplays everything. Oh, the title comes from the line, ‘Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods’.

Ultimately, Mary Lou offers the correct solution to save mankind, although we don’t see the results. At the end, you will remember the cry to stop a robot from acting: ‘Bug off, robot.’ Superb reading.

GF Willmetts

March 2022

(pub: Gollancz. 278 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-07915-1)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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