"Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods"
My favorite speculative fiction of all time is Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days which I read back in 2012, while the very first science fiction I read was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I read these books only a few months apart and I was forever changed because of them and this change has definitely got me interested to venture on acquiring and experiencing more of what the science fiction genre has to offer as much as I could. Eleven more sci-fi books later, I remained insatiable, more so after finishing this one. The very first thing that struck me while in the middle of consuming this novel by Walter Tevis is that it was unmistakably a majestic blend of both the dystopic landscapes featured in Huxley's book, and written in the same nostalgic manner of aching, melancholic sensibility and spiritual contemplation very much alive in Cunningham's work. With that, I couldn't help but find myself deeply embedded in the pores of this haunting tale of Mockingbird.
Like most sci-fi books, it started with an off-beat promising premise that slowly developed into something personal and tragic for both the characters and a reader like myself. I think books like this one work very well for me because they lavish on the often inarticulately beautiful quality of human life and the art and terrible burden of living itself; how precious and fleeting our lives truly are, and what happens when a certain moral decay or a disintegration of long-held valuable things occur. Truth be told, Mockingbird is a tapestry of themes I mostly associate with some of my favorite sci-fi stories like Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, to name a few. There's the usual existential crisis where characters live in an age of detachment from self and/or others but suddenly and quite poignantly awaken from their stupor to contemplate and pursue the meaning of why they exist to begin with and why the world has been reduced to shambles, whether physically or metaphorically.
Mockingbird follows the same formula with its own invigorating narrative. The central theme of this book focuses on the grim possibility of humanity losing literacy, particularly their ability to read, and how that seemingly simple negligence would follow a series of other significant losses due to population control via fertility-inhibiting drugs (and other forms of recreational drug use to numb everything away), the disappearance of any creative endeavor like art and literature, and utter extinction of family, community and religious inclinations. All of these set-ups sound awfully familiar already, and rightly so because Tevis does share his dystopic characterizations of his world in the same vein as Huxley's inarguably superior novel Brave New World. However, what does elevate Mockingbird in another new level entirely is the quality it also shares with another novel I love to pieces, Specimen Days, when it comes to its character arcs and relationships.
"My upbringing, like that of all the other members of my Thinker Class, had made me into an unimaginative, self-centered and drug-addicted fool. Until learning how to read I had lived in a whole underpopulated world of self-centered, drug-addicted fools, all of us living by our Rules of Privacy in some crazy dream of Self-Fulfillment." ~ Paul
The summary found at the back of the book was slightly misleading. I originally thought that the android character Spofforth would be the main focus of the entire novel but it turns out that this responsibility belongs to two other characters; a man and a woman named Paul Bentley and Mary Lou respectively who are instantly recognizable as the representational equivalent of their world's very own Adam and Eve, as both stumble their way into consciousness and awareness together. Paul was introduced as the only human being who has the ability to read which he picked up on by accident when he unearthed an instructional videotape on the subject. Spofforth hired him to record the written dialogues in the archives of silent films which was an activity Paul has learned to enjoy and appreciate. By learning to read and watching film from a forgotten era, certain feelings were brought forth from Paul; thoughts and emotions he never recognized which only deepened when he begins a relationship with Mary Lou who dared him to question and outright ignore the rules programmed into them as children. True to being a biblical Eve, Mary Lou dares Paul to challenge the status quo.
Paul's journey to "memorize his life" as suggested by Mary Lou was done by the very simple act of scribbling his daily grind into pages upon pages of diary entries. But the more he records his own memories and encounters, the more miserable he becomes when he realizes how dull the world has become with its people caught in a standstill, burying all their self-awareness through drugs and quick sex. His nuanced journey from imprisonment to liberation on two levels--the physical and the emotional--is, for me, the most humane aspect of this book. I eagerly discovered things alongside him as he devoured what scarce books he can find in the places he travels. One notable place is an abandoned mall outlet where small groups of Christian families reside. His collective experience with these people is one of the most ironically comical yet heartwarming moments found in the novel.
"Why don't we talk to one another? Why don't we huddle together against the cold wind that blows down the empty streets in the city? People used to read, hearing the voices of the living and the dead speaking to them in eloquence silence, in touch with a babble of human talk that must have filled the mind in a manner that said I am human. I talk and I listen and I read. Why did we stop reading? What happened?" ~ Mary Lou
Mary Lou is an engaging, clever and intelligent young woman who was inquisitive enough to figure out by herself that there is something amiss in the world she lives in. All her life she has been on the run, disobeying rules and making a mockery of the robot-police state, all for the sake of not forgetting what makes her human and unique in spite of the initial programming all children are required to undergo which diminishes personality and identity. Paul was understandably drawn to her and as he teaches her to read, she in turn opens him up to a realm of turbulent feelings and creative musings, instilling in him dismissed qualities such as imagination and intellectual curiosity. Her journey in this book is about satisfying that same curiosity as well as understanding why children have become extinct and accepting that there is a faint glimmer of hope that she may have found a way to turn things around if she's brave and resolute enough to do it.
"I would like to know, before I die, what it was like to be the human being I have tried to be all my life." ~ Robert Spofforth
Spofforth is the first character we get introduced to in this book but the role he plays is much less personal but nonetheless just as moving and sad. A robot created by implanting another living person'a brain, he suffers dreams and thoughts from that late person's life and so develops an acute sense of 'humanness'. This is troubling because what Spofforth really wants to do is to cease to exist but his programming does not allow him to die as long as humans still have a need for his kind, a robot of the Make Nine series, and probably the last one there is. For an android, Spofforth is surprisingly humane and often relatable, especially during such times he is subjected to gloom and suicidal thoughts.
Mockingbird is an enduring work of the heart and the imagination, an enchanting tale about human resilience and creativity while also being a painful yet also humorous commentary on the qualities that we as humans value and celebrate and the awful aftermath that follows once we take these same things for granted in the long run. Much like Brave New World, this book's take on a dystopic society of drug-addled and individual-based society is unforgettable, and its prose is sparse yet can powerfully illuminate dark recesses of the soul in the same manner Specimen Days has achieved as well. The world Paul and Mary Lou live in may be underpopulated but their story will certainly proliferate strong emotions from readers who will consume it and hopefully appreciate such simple yet essential things in life we can so easily forget and destroy.