One good thing about Christmas is that I get a chance to catch up on my reading.
I just finished ‘Mockingbird’ by Walter Tevis. Here is my review.
‘Mockingbird’ is a novel set in a false utopia.
In 25th Century New York, one can’t help the feeling that the world has lost its way. Grass-blades poke up through the broken paving slabs. No cars move along the silent streets, and only a scant handful of people move amongst the half-abandoned houses. The Empire State Building is the only remaining skyscraper, and that too is all but unused, bar one occasional visitor. The few remaining people resort to chemical happiness and television pornography to deny the meaninglessness of their empty existences. Even this escape seems a scant one – more and more people are choosing suicide-by-self-immolation. It’s to the point where it’s becoming a public nuisance – the characters are frequently interrupted in the middle of their meals by spontaneous fireball-suicides.
And it’s not just New York that’s going off the rails. Of the world as a whole, the population is now below 20 million and no children have been born in almost a generation. But the scant masses don’t care – they were indoctrinated from birth to ‘don’t ask why – relax!’
Curiosity, friendliness and intellectual curiosity have no place in this brave new world. The people believe that they possess the ultimate freedom, a sort of solipsistic individuality, but that freedom is a hollow fiction. Beyond the cod-libertarian ‘paradise’ of easy drugs, banal television and free sex, anyone who dares to dissent will be hunted down and removed to camps for those who have ‘Dropped Out’ – that is, dared to seek any form of more meaningful existence.
The society is policed and run by robots. Democracy has apparently withered on the vine at some point; New York apparently still has a City Council and a Mayor, but they are shown to be legally-powerless. (The Mayor is a tepid man who spends most of his time snoring in an armchair, deep in a drugged-up slumber. He neither exercises power nor shows any interest in it.) At one point we meet the Government of North America. The Government is an aging computer program, about as intelligent and responsive as an answer-phone.
This two-facedness is almost symbolic of the world as a whole.
Behind the public facade of absolute freedom, the society is in fact a totalitarian horror, a lowest common-denominator dystopia. The disaster wasn’t (originally) evoked by hostility from without, rather it was generated from the bottom up through apathy, narcissm and a widespread abnegation of all personal responsibility. (We learn that the world’s decline was a gradual process, running over several centuries. No one single event started it off, and some people did try to arrest the slow fall.)
The robots are the glue that keeps the society working (insofar as it does). But like the cracked pavements, the robots too are breaking down. Components are wearing out and no-one has the skills – or the urge – to maintain them any more. The drugged-up ‘heaven’ is fast fracturing into one gigantic hellish hangover.
There are three main characters to the novel. Spofforth is one of the robots, the most sophisticated ever created. In a sense, he is humanity’s peak creation, the climax of technology and science. And yet he is a flawed creation, uncertain, miserable and neurotic – and yet unable to kill himself, no matter how much he longs to die. On the one hand he has worked to maintain the dying world for as long as he can, even stooping to personally unblocking some of the sewers. On the other hand, well, shall we say that he also has some complicity in creating this horror of a world? It is fair to call Spofforth an ambigous character. On the one hand, he helped make this hell, and he treats the other two characters rather badly. And yet, on the other hand, his actions spur them to some degree of self-development. Also, as for the dying world itself, well, humanity started off on that course all by itself, so the blame is by no means entirely Spofforth’s.
Bentley is a ‘professor’ at one of the so-called ‘universities’. He teaches students to be better solipsists, to progress toward a personal singularity of introversion and social withdrawal. During ‘classics’ lectures, he shows them pornographic films. He questions none of this, until he stumbles across an ancient child’s primer. As a result of studying this baffling artifact – a single flare of curiosity in an otherwise vacant life – he accidentally learns to read. (Possibly he is the first human in centuries to have this ability.) Unwittingly, he puts himself on collision course with Spofforth as he does so. Bentley is at first rigid, uncreative and humourless, but as time passes he rediscovers more of his humanity. He develops a more rounded, likeable character. (His viewpoint writing initially uses short, prosaic sentences. As the story progresses they get longer and more complex. The descriptions become richer. I liked this transition as it really shows you his progression as a person.)
Mary Lou, unlike Bentley, is a rebel from the start. However at first she is unfocused and uncritical – she has little idea what exactly she is rebelling against. Also, initially, she lacks much agency. She rarely acts on her own initiative, seemingly pulled one way then the other by other people. However, as the story progresses, Mary Lou also learns to read (via Bentley). She finds herself drawn into Spofforth’s unhealthy psychodrama. First this is as an unwitting participant. Later on, however, she begins to take control. In a gratifying twist, by the end of the book, she is the one in control, not Spofforth or Bentley. Also, it emerges that Mary Lou is in fact fiercely intelligent, much brighter than any of the other characters. And she refuses the false comfort of idle passivity – she decides to take the world and give it the good shaking that it clearly needs! And she does so in spectacular style.
Reading this book was a powerful and rather uncomfortable experience. I would certainly place it up there with 1984 or Brave New World, even if it is less well-known. Its vision of a self-inflicted, solipsistic hell is as chilling as it may be topical.
One strong scene preshadows Mary Lou’s eventual emergence. It riffs off of the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve and the snake, but also brutally subverts it. Mary Lou offers Bentley the fruit, but he refuses to take it! (Implicity, the scene also rejects the notion of original sin, a conclusion echoed by Bentley’s later theological musings.)
However, some aspects of the story are dated. (It was written in 1980, so it’s more than 30 years old.) I found its absolute and unquestioning adherence to the uber-traditional nuclear family to be somewhat jarring. We’re told, in rather a didactic fashion, that the lack of the family is the root problem of the dying world – but it seemed to me that the real problem wasn’t the lack of the family, but the unwillingness of people to accept any responsibility for others’ welfare. This seems to be much more in keeping with the text itself, despite what we’re explicitly told. I suspect the irony is unintentional, too.
Also, there was some rather ropey science here and there. For instance, the ‘sopors’, super-powered narcotics with no actual side-effects (except infertility, and that isn’t exactly a side-effect). Also, at one point, Bentley is exposed to the core of a running atomic reactor. He feels a bit hot, but there are no signs of any radiation poisoning. He doesn’t even get sunburnt! In addition, we are told that the ‘Denver Incident’ caused the natural world to be ‘stifled’, apparently leading to the demise of most animals. However, despite this enormous disruption to food webs there is no sign of any ecological collapse – in fact, the natural world seems robustly healthy, unlike the human one.
Finally, one pretty major roadblock for me was the first Bentley-Mary Lou sex scene. The book doesn’t quite say it in as many words, but it does read like it wasn’t entirely consensual. I found this rather squicky and off-putting. I also found it weird that this has no further effect on their subsequent interactions, aside from the small issue of Mary Lou getting pregnant.
But, overall, this book was interesting to read. It was harrowing in places, shocking in others and it certainly isn’t a happy tale. However, it wasn’t boring. And I definitely think it’s worth reading, as a different perspective on the dystopian genre.