Great Effing Novels: Mockingbird by Walter Tevis


In brief: I have one thing to say: Mockingbird is one of the best novels I've ever read. I never thought I'd be moved to say such a thing at my age, but there you go. The rest of this review goes into why, but the point is simple: read it, then talk to me about it. It also corrected my belief that no one could read anything original about New York City anymore.

Walter Tevis also wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and despised both adaptations.

The Full Review

When you know that humanity's coming to an end, what would you want your legacy to be? These are the thoughts that drive us; we pretend to be concerned with a bigger picture, but that view tends to sit just out of reach, something we strive for but never achieve, trapped as we are in our own petty quests.

What if your single driving goal in life is to die? That you want this one thing so badly that every decision you make services that desire, with no regard for consequences to others? That's the question that Walter Tevis' Mockingbird asks. What depravity would that desire drive us to, and how will we mutate if we can't succeed?

Walter Tevis' Mockingbird overflows with character. Dystopian fiction, especially the kind designed to stimulate "big ideas about the dangerous direction society is headed", doesn't tend to concern itself too much with people ("big thoughts" being the operative concept).

Think of 1984 or Brave New World or even Yevgeny Zamyatin's We: there's a male lead who's notable for his very inhumanity, and some female who spurs thoughts of "zomg my desire to act on my desires for love and sex will set me free even if they kill me for it!"

If I'm being reductive, it's with reason. These women are objects; the science fiction equivalent of the manic pixie dream girl saves our hero from a life of total conformity.

But in Mockingbird, there are no heroes, just people striving to be human, which is a heroic enough feat. Because no one's elevated to being more than they are, the characters are actually allowed to breathe: we know Mary Lou, and we understand why she doesn't wait for Bentley (which is a thing every other woman in every other fucking dystopian novel would have done, or felt tortured for not doing).

Not just people; robots too. Spofforth the philosophical android is unique enough: you never forget that he's a product of cold human design, yet he still evolves into a peculiar personhood of his own. Did I mention he's black? A black fucking android roaming the streets of New York City, distracting the world with his perfect physical form while trapped in the darkness of his own driving ambition.

He makes so many bad decisions, like any good human. And yet his value his clear. You see what happens to the world when he stops paying attention. The real answer? It doesn't fall apart, but he feels it does. That's not a human feeling at all.

Mockingbird's world came to be not because of outside concepts like technology and politics, but from human mistakes (if you think that's a weird statement to make about a robot, you haven't yet met Spofforth). The tension between a desire for privacy and a desire to be part of something bigger than oneself drives much of the narrative.

But I've just spent a lot of words to say one simple thing: read this novel. You will love it. The end.

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