If you mix Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and Children of Men, add a dash of Blade Runner and a sprinkling of marijuana, what do you get?
The answer is Mockingbird by Walter Tevis, author of The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Queen’s Gambit.
This is a very unusual science fiction novel, set mainly in New York, about 400 years in the future. There are no more children being born, while the few adults left have nothing but drugs, TV and a broken society. Robots control every aspect of life but even they are worn down and suicidal. The novel focuses on three protagonists. Spofforth is a black humanoid robot, highly intelligent, depressed and the last of his kind. Bentley is a shy young man and a fan of silent movies, who’s taught himself the illegal skill of reading. Mary Lou is a homeless free spirit who rejects drugs and sees the truth of everything. Bentley and Mary Lou fall in love, but Spofforth is going to throw a spanner in the works.
There are many themes in this novel which are commonly found in science fiction, dystopias in particular. The book is also a statement on the value of reading and of making your own decisions. I see a lot of parallels with today’s society, especially in lockdown times. The people in Mockingbird are conditioned to respect each other’s privacy so much that social distancing is the norm. They are stoned all of the time, discouraged from asking questions, glued to their screens. Even the robots are inclined to roll a joint and ignore everyone else.
I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book so much, as I felt that the story became bogged down in ideas rather than action. There was also more of a focus on Bentley, who I didn’t find as interesting as Spofforth and Mary Lou. I certainly found it thought-provoking, but unlike The Man Who Fell to Earth, I wouldn’t want to re-read.
First published in 1980. This edition published in 2015 by Gollancz in the SF Masterworks series.