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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Friday, December 14, 2012

1981 Nebula Award Nominee 'Mockingbird' by Walter Tevis

Mockingbird'Mockinbird' is one of the truly lost gems of science fiction, you never hear people talking about it.  The novel won no awards, it's only claim to fame being the nomination for the Nebula Award.  While Tevis might have achieved a little bit of celebrity for some of his other work, he's been largely forgotten by now, and barring other writers' praise for it almost no one talks about 'Mockingbird.'  This novel is tragic and haunting and subdued and so depressing that when I read it I was sure that the author had killed himself not long after writing it.  I loved it.  Tevis puts forth the sort of dystopian novel that should have stood alongside '1984' and 'Brave New World' and it's almost tragic that it's been so forgotten.
I think Tevis is probably best known for his Hustler books, 'The Hustler' and 'The Color of Money.'  Both of these have been turned into decent movies starring Paul Newman (and one with Tom Cruise).  He also wrote 'The Man who Fell to Earth' a novel which tragically wasn't nominated for a Hugo Award (the Nebula wasn't around when it was published).  Fell to Earth might be best known now for being that movie where David Bowie was the star but it's also a great novel, and many people have said one of the best representations of alcoholism in all of literature.
Tevis' style changed through all his work.  While Fell to Earth was written in a more classic sci-fi style his other works like 'The Queen's Gambit' are very traditional literary concepts, driven by character and story, absolutely nothing like what we see in 'Mockingbird.'  Tevis sets out a world that is slowly destroying itself, and blends the concept with his writing style very well.  The novel reads like a more depressed Philip K. Dick many passages will remind the reader of Dick's work and any fans of Dick's work should definitely check this out.
Tevis' apacolypse occurs not through technology as so many science fiction writers like to set out, but apathy.  Technology has reached a point where human beings can live comfortably without worry and most simply spend their days in a drug fueled haze before committing suicide.  Literacy rates have dropped to almost zero, and intelligence is at an all time low.  There are fully conscious robots that care for people in this novel, and for the first half almost all intelligence will come from their direction.
People have compared this to "An unofficial sequel to 'Farennheit 451,'" and while there are similarities between the two novels I don't think it's an apt comparison.  451 has a very specific message and focus, that literature has importance, while 'Mockingbird' has much more to say about the apathetic nature of humanity in general while contemplating both death and suicide.  The world is not in danger in 451, it is just becoming something that we find unsavory, in Bird the entire human race is being extinguished because no one can be bothered to stop it.
Tevis uses the science fiction in this novel to help tell the story without using any sci-fi tropes for their own sake, something I'm always happy to see.  Many writers have said that in a good novel the story drives the characters, but in a great novel the characters drive the story.  I've felt the same about science fiction for some time, in a good sci-fi novel the science fiction drives the story while in a great novel the characters drive the science fiction.  Tevis tells a sci-fi story in which the science fiction is essential, the theme he's trying to convey and the characters he creates simply could not exist without the sci-fi elements he employs. 
And Tevis does create compelling characters here.  That Spofforth could possibly be a sympathetic character while at the same time killing all of humanity is a credit to that.  Tevis takes what is essentially a three character play and turns it into a study on humanity and redemption.  Spofforth is a robot designed after human beings, but tasked with all the responsibilities of a robot.  Making him basically subservient to human beings, he sets out to serve humanity as best he can.  After hundreds of years he decides that he can accomplish that best by destroying them.  The two human beings in the story, Paul and Mary Lou, start off ineffectual and irritating, but in the end provide the redemption of the novel setting humanity back on a different track.
What this says about Tevis' view of the universe is intense.  By depriving what is basically a person of the ability to die he brings death to all those around him.  Not through any diabolical means but with birth control.  Anyone could stop Spofforth's plan, but no one can be roused enough to even notice it, much less bring it to a stop.  That Spofforth's goal is not the death of humanity but his own death is perhaps what makes him so compelling, his description of a world in which he is completely alone and without the ability to die forces the reader to come as close to agreeing with him as possible.
It's strange to say that a novel that ends in suicide can be uplifting, but I loved this book.  Tevis shows people at their worst, apathetic, bored, drugged, but also at their best.  The novel places Spofforth at center stage, and by making him the character we identify with most underlines our own loneliness and solitude.  Tevis claims early on in the novel that we are all alone in life, and through the rise and fall of the book's tale does nothing to counteract that claim.  Somehow I still find the novel uplifting, perhaps I agree with his statement about loneliness, but also with his idea that people will generally overcome and that life continues on.  And perhaps that we can take small comfort in knowing we will not live forever, and that's okay.

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