Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Lost Books (well, almost), Part III: Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis

I meant to write this several weeks ago, and because I delayed, this is no longer a lost book. Gollancz have reprinted it as the latest in their SF Masterworks series, so you can now buy new copies from rather than hunting for it on Trust a publisher to ruin a perfectly good title just for the sake of bringing back a brilliant novel. Where are their priorities?

Anyway, since Mockingbird was last printed in the US in 1999, those of you who believe that the US is the whole world can still think of it as a lost book. But it was a Nebula nominee in 1980, and my personal favourite out of the shortlist, because it's a thoroughly human story (even though one of the three central characters is a robot) set in an all-too-believable future.

Bob Spofforth is the sole surviving Make Nine robot, a superhuman intelligence charged with serving humanity. All of his predecessors managed to commit suicide before their makers thought to re-program them to make this impossible. Periodically, he climbs to the top of the Empire State Building in the hope of slipping, but can't.

Professor Paul Bentley has rediscovered reading, after finding some long-forgotten books and an educational film amid the university's collection of old porn.

Mary Lou lives in the zoo, and has learned to survive by outwitting service robots. Paul falls in love with her, and teaches her to read. Together, they come to the realization that all of the children they see are actually robots, as are the zoo animals. Mary Lou is allergic to the drugs that most people take habitually, which include a contraceptive: the automated systems that run the world have done this to reduce overpopulation, unaware that the population has fallen well below their original target. When Spofforth realizes that Mary Lou has become pregnant, he arrests Paul for reading and sends him to a prison farm.

The nightmarish society that Tevis has created in this novel is an extrapolation of the 'me generation', where any sort of meaningful human bond is considered a crime against the new gods of Individuality and Privacy. The only places where Paul encounters rebels against this - okay, make that living rebels, as self-immolation suicides are almost part of the landscape - are in the all-male prison environment, and in a huge fallout shelter where an inbred strain of fundamentalist Christianity does an equally good job of suppressing individuality, especially for women.

This may sound gloomy, and I don't want to give away any more of the plot, but the pessimistic vision of a world dying of apathy and ignorance is softened by Tevis's compassion for his characters. If you haven't read it, do so while you still can.

I owe two debts of thanks to Gollancz (no, I didn't mean that to rhyme). The first is for their publication of hardback sf novels during my high school days: those yellow covers were visible from clear across the library. Understandably, when they started reprinting sf classics a few years ago, they did so in similar yellow covers. When these sold poorly, they began the SF Masterworks series with more conventional sf cover art (but cover art that actually reflected the content of the books - wow, what a concept). They have recently expanded this into a Fantasy Masterworks and a Crime Masterworks series, all of which are well worth supporting, and which have made my part-time job as an sf bookseller much easier and more rewarding. And for that, many thanks, and I was only kidding about you ruining my title.


Blue Tyson said...

Yep, missed that one.

Yellow Gollancz in the library was great!

You ever read Dave Wolverton's On My Way To Paradise?

Stephen Dedman said...

No. Probably should hunt it down: I met Dave at Worldcon once, and he's a nice guy as well as an interesting one.

Blue Tyson said...

Yeah, definitely deserving book for your category, here.

If you can't find it or costs too much, can do a swap/loan etc. if you like.