Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

mockingbird-661x1024I quite enjoyed the first hundred pages or so of Walter Tevis’ Mockingbird (1980), which manage to convey an intricate and moving sense of emotional introspection while simultaneously doing the big-picture busywork of establishing the novel’s creepy dystopian setting. Unfortunately, however, it’s all downhill from there. The book’s early chapters primed me to expect an open-minded and liberal argument about human behaviour and the future direction of society, but what I actually found was a disappointingly conservative piece of defensive status-quo-ism.

Mockingbird bathetically undermines its own thesis by concluding that the best way to overcome an enforced and judgemental attitude towards human behaviour is to replace it with… a different but still equally moralistic set of prescribed behaviours. Tevis fails to realise that the problem with his dystopian society isn’t that the wrong type of behaviour is being mandated, but that behaviour is being mandated in the first place. So the problematic here isn’t the kind of binary, but the very fact of the binary. The book’s basic argument is this: recreational drugs, T.V. casual sex, pornography, advanced tech, privacy = bad. The nuclear family, monogamous sex, labour, openness, knowledge, reading = good.

Yeah, it has that weird 1970’s Sci-fi thing of being obsessed with sex, which, coupled with a het male-gazey approach to women’s bodies, is just incredibly tedious, lechy and unnecessary.

It’s all really grah, because on a sentence-by-sentence level Mockingbird can be very expressive. Its characters are distinct, the dialogue is believable, and there are passages of wilderness writing that do a good job of evoking the emptiness of once-thriving cities abandoned and returning to nature, which is trope-ish, sure, but good fun nonetheless.


The novel opens with the story of the tongue-twistingly named Spofforth, a human-like robot so advanced that he falls in love, gets horny, and longs to start a family, all of which are, apparently, universal hallmarks of humanity. But being a robot and, shall we say, anatomically incomplete, Spofforth is unable to realise any of these desires, which are mostly hang-overs from the real-life human brain that was the model for his robot consciousness. Spofforth’s dilemma is this: while he’s unable to satisfy his sexual and familial desires, he’s also unable to end his own existence, as his anti-suicide programming kicks in whenever he tries to destroy himself.

I’m not sure if “the robot depressive who can’t kill himself” is quite the existential tragedy that the text would have us believe, but Spofforth’s chapters are nonetheless effecting, especially when he is tormented by dreams and imaginings that belonged to the long-dead human that his brain was, in part, copied from. In fact, the once-human dreams that plague Spofforth are where Mockingbird’s prose really shines. Here the text is beautifully estranging, offering one of the best and most othering examples of the robot-who-wants-to-be-human cliché I’ve encountered in a while.

A secondhand dream, taken by accident from a life he had not lived


“I wanted to live with you the way the man whose dreams I have might have lived; hundreds of years ago.”

(Though occasionally it does become hilariously pretentions, “I did not want to live with the real anymore”, so watch out for that)

The early Spofforth chapters also introduce us to Mockingbird’s future society. The global human population has collapsed to around 18 million, there’s nobody alive under 30, and everybody was brought up in these sort of brain-washing nurseries where they learn to follow the maxims of privacy and “inwardness”, a philosophy that espouses no eye contact, no touching, no intimacy of any kind. There’s also an obsession with “mandatory politeness” which, if this book wasn’t 36 years old, could sound like one of those anti-SJW satires the alt-right like to put out.

Most people waste their days taking “sopors” and smoking marijuana, which, as we know, turns anybody who ever touches it into a drooling moron. The book is extremely condescending in its anti-drugs preaching, and reaches peak silliness towards the end of the novel when a character in her late thirties suddenly realises that she hasn’t seen any children in decades: she’d been too drugged-up to notice their absence, or something. Yeah.

Oh, and everybody is illiterate.

Next the book introduces us to Paul, Mockingbird’s primary narrator. Paul teaches himself how to read, which opens up a world of understanding and empathy. In becoming literate, Paul learns about intimacy, society, work etc, all the things that have been eradicated by the new obsession with “inwardness”. The rebirth of literacy has the potential, it’s claimed, to end the decades of social inertia and to get history moving again, “when literacy died, so had history”.

I like the idea of literature being what finally overcomes the apocalypse, and the salvage of words becoming more important than the salvage of things, which is a nice inversion of the scrap fetish that’s so common in books of this genre. There are even some funny passages in which Paul becomes more and more frustrated as he plunders the world’s ruined libraries: the only books he can find are, like, manuals on Chess openings and useless stuff like that. Nature hasn’t been selective in deciding which books survived the centuries of decay, which is comically realistic. (although the discovery of a “how to fix robots” book is a bit too serendipitous for my liking)

But this argument about literacy as social panacea starts to lose its charm when Tevis begins coupling it with some pretty conservative ideas about the nuclear family. One of the book’s legendary and most literate characters “was, by the way, one of the few people I know who were brought up in a family”. The text all but states that family is the necessary context for literacy, intelligence and empathy, while failing to care that the necessary context for stable family is, so often, social privilege. The novel’s ending (which (spoilers) sees the establishment of a new two-parent family) infuriated me with its hypocrisy. After 250 pages of satire about the negative things that happen when people are told how to live, the book concludes by… telling us how we should live.

Eventually it all just begins to feel like an over-long dissatisfied allegory for late twentieth century social change. It reads like some op-ed columnist ranting about kids these days who watch too much T.V., don’t know the value of hard work, and who’re all drugged-up, promiscuous idiots. There are value judgements everywhere.

The book’s treatment of its female characters also leaves a lot to be desired. Mary-Lou, Paul’s lover, is repeatedly described in terms of her physical appearance, a stylistic tick that Tevis reserves for all of the book’s women, but none of its men. Indeed, the writer seems to be having a debate with himself about whether or not Mary-Lou is attractive. “Her face was not very pretty” is the opening of one chapter, while another chapter uses the exact phrase “she was very beautiful” twice in two pages. I don’t want to get too bogged-down in synopsis, but the narrative importance of Mary-Lou can be summed up thusly: to become a wife and mother so the world can start reading again.

Large tracts of the text also smack of authorial self-insertion fantasy. It’s the nerdy, hyper-literate reader who, in a world full of illiterate idiots, must save society by restoring it to its former, everything-in-its-right-place glory. There’s a creepy sense of awe that the women of the novel express when confronted with our literate hero. Seriously, Tevis pitches his protagonist, Paul, in language that’s more in keeping with superhero stories:

“Jesus Paul, you’ve changed”

I said nothing, but nodded,

“You look… you look ready for anything”

Suddenly I found words. “That’s right”, I said. And then I stepped forward and put my arms around her and pulled her to me, very hard.

I laughed.

It’s frustrating as hell, because there is some good writing here. There’s a great mid-novel chapter in which Paul stumbles upon an ancient toaster factory that recycles the toasters it makes and turns them into yet more toasters, which functions as successful and funny metaphor for the change-less dystopia in which Paul lives. The resolution of Spofforth’s story is also well done, a nice example of “the best laid schemes of mice and men [(and robots?)] gang aft agley”. It’s a shame, then, that these are rare moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout an otherwise moralistic, patronising novel. For a work of far-future science fiction, it’s surprising how socially conservative Mockingbird ends up being.

As a final note, can anybody fathom what the phrase “Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods” means? It’s this refrain that’s used constantly throughout the text, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what Walter Tevis is getting at. I assume the “mockingbird” is the mock-human Spofforth, but, as for the rest of it? No idea.

4 responses to “Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

  1. Pingback: Everything I read in 2016 | tomcat in the red room

  2. I’m just reading the book, it is rather poorly written but I love the story and don’t really mind the patronizing tone (wasn’t Tolsoy patronizing all the bloody time and who cares, it’s precious anyway). I really would want to know, however, where the verse is from. “Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods…” Any idea? I can’t find it. As for the interpretation – find your own one, or be happy that at least one line in the whole book is not all that descriptive and flat.

  3. Wow, you were very harsh on this author and book.
    He wrote it as an author and recovering alcoholic who is imagining the world where no one reads anymore. Faranheit 451 was just published where they burned books to stop people from reading. Well that didn’t work, so what if you created a world where people didn’t learn to read or write. All writing stopped? There are many references in the book to other books and poems, Anabel by the Sea, Poe is one of them. To kill a Mockingbird- The movkingbird does nothing but sits and sings.
    You looked at it from only your point of view and didn’t look at the author and his struggles with alcoholism, his environment or his struggle with failed suicide attempts.

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