Sunday, January 22, 2012

Walter Tevis, Mockingbird (1980) SFMW 70

Robert Spofforth, 'mankind's most beautiful toy,' (p. 278) is 'the last of a hundred robots designated Make Nine, the strongest and most intelligent creatures ever made by man. He was also the only one programmed to stay alive despite his own wishes' (p. 4).
Spofforth's personality has been derived from 'a brilliant and melancholic engineer named Paisley['s] […] personality, his imagination, and his learning had all been recorded on tapes when he was forty-three, and afterwards the man was forgotten' (p. 4)

However, Spofforth 'did not really want to live. He had been cheated – horribly cheated – of a real, human life, something in him rebelled against living the life that had been thrust upon him' (p. 10)

It is difficult to review the work without disclosing its plot, namely [select text to read] Spofforth's program of social engineering to make man extinct as a species and thereby allow his machine protocols to finally let him destroy himself. Spofforth's ambitions are threatened when Mary Lou and Bentley stop taking the sedatives and drugs, which (although unknown to them at the time) also contain contraceptives, and therefore place his agenda in danger through their propagation.

Spofforth's solution is to separate the pair by jailing Bentley for the illegal act of cohabitation, and to experiment with his pseudo-humanity in the interim by taking Mary Lou away with him and installing her in his apartment as a surrogate wife, despite his sexlessness.

Paul Bentley is what passes for a university professor in the twenty-fifth century that Tevis envisages. Education has become a much-degraded and perfunctory affair in the novel as humanity has lost the ability to read. Bentley is extraordinary in that having discovered some books, rare but nevertheless unvalued artifacts, he has taught himself to read with them. Bentley now wishes to teach others to do the same, and presents himself to Spofforth, Dean of Faculties at New York University (but formerly Director of Population Control) at the beginning of the novel. However, Spofforth sets Bentley about the task of recording the dialogue in archival silent film instead.

Mary Lou Borne is an escapee from a public dormitory for children who grew up in the desert and has been on the margins of the society the novel depicts ever since.

A section towards the middle of the work narrated by Mary Lou offers some insight into her radicalisation by an old man called Simon whom she encountered and lived with for a time in the desert. Simon inculcates in her the idea, if not a full understanding of, the impact that 'the death of intellectual curiosity' has had upon humanity, and the fact that 'everybody's head is a cheap movie show' (p. 98). Spofforth in his turn also has some bitter things to say along the same lines later in the novel: 'The American Individualist, the Free Spirit. The Frontiersman. With a human face indistinguishable from that of a moron robot. And at his home or his motel he had television to keep the world away. And pills in his pocket. And the stereo. And the pictures in the magazines he looked at, with food and sex better and brighter than in life' (p. 174).

Mary Lou offers some jarring reflections on her relationships with Bentley and Spofforth, which invite the reader to consider her inner life as a character more intently than the narrative to this point has suggested that they may need to:

'Paul was pathetically serious. It's comical just to remember how his face looked when I threw the rock at the glass on the python cage, or how gravely he went about teaching me how to read. And he used to read over the first parts of this journal, when we were living at the library, and purse his lips, and frown – even at the bits I thought were funny.

Bob was hardly better. It would be silly to expect a robot to have a sense of humour, but it is still hard to take his gravity and his sensitivity. Especially when he tells me about that dream he keeps having and that he has had all of his long life. At first I was interested, but eventually I became bored with it.

I suppose that dream has much to do with my living here in this three-bedroom apartment with him. It was almost certainly the beginning of his desire to live and act like an ordinary human being of a long time ago, to try to live a life like the life of the dream's original dreamer.' (pp. 98-99)

I miss Paul. I think I loved Paul in some small way. But when I get right down to it, I don't really mind this life, this being the companion of a brown-skinned robot. What the hell, I used to live at the zoo, for Christ's sake. I'll make out.' (p. 99)

Education's aim in the novel is to shame, pacify and alienate, expressed through parroted maxims such as “when in doubt, forget it.”' (p. 22); 'quick sex is best' (p. 10), and 'alone is best.' (p. 28)

This deadening of affect and interpersonal relations is completed by the tranquilisers (sopors), joints and drugged food that are routinely ingested by the citizenry. Self-immolations by combustion are described frequently within the novel, their agents depicted as being unable to either iterate or comprehend the stunted nature of their lives, but seemingly driven by deeper urges to end their existences rather than endure the mockery of being that Spofforth's plan has imposed upon them.

A good deal of the book is narrated by Bentley in the first person in the form of a journal that Spofforth instructs him to keep during his studies. Bentey's auto-didactic program brings him to self-consciousness, and prompts him to question every aspect of the rigid social structures his world is governed by: 'I discovered the word “memorize.” And this was the definition given:”To learn by heart,” and how strange that was – heart, to learn by heart. I could not understand it all. And yet the word “heart” somehow seems right, for I know that my heart has always beaten. Always.' (p. 35). Readers also share, and are thereby invited to reflect upon the implications of, several epiphanic moments in Bentley's self-education, including his coming to understand the purpose and function of dictionaries (pp. 69-72).

During his incessant search for printed matter, Bentley encounters a text published at that point in the novel's prehistory where reading died, which is interesting to encounter in our own historic moment as digital books supersede their printed antecedents:
'I have a copy of the last book ever published by Random House, once a place of business that cause books to be printed and sold by the millions. The book is called Heavy Rape, it was published in 2189. On the flyleaf is a statement that begins: “With this novel, fifth in a series, Random House closes its editorial doors. The abolition of reading programs in the schools in the past twenty years has helped bring this about. It is with regret...” and so on.' (p. 114)
Bentley also encounters a book by Alfred Fain called The Last Autobiography wherein the author opines 'A friend of mine who works part time as the head of a publishing house says the average book finds about eighty readers. I've asked him why they don't stop publishing altogether. He says he frankly doesn't know, but that his publishing company is such a tiny division of the recreation corporation that owns it that they have probably forgotten about its existence. He doesn't know how to read himself, but he respects books because his mother had been a kind of recluse who read almost constantly, and he loved her dearly.' (pp. 117-18).

The work also envisages the impact of a future peak oil crisis within the novel's fictional world from Tevis's 1980s viewpoint 'before the Death of Oil and long before the Nuclear Battery Age […] when gasoline had become more expensive than whiskey, and most people stayed home.' (p. 173)

Subsequent to his escape from prison, Bentley takes shelter briefly in a defective factory, a 'mindless parody of productivity' (p. 168) which stands as a metaphor for the banal nature of the endless consumption of manufactured needs in a world of finite resources: 'The factory was a closed system. Nothing came in and nothing went out. It could have been making and unmaking defective toasters for centuries, for all I knew.' (p. 167)

Mockingbird begins and ends in Manhattan. This paradigmatic urban environment, read backwards from the twenty-fifth century Tevis imagines to the historical present of the work's composition around 1980, holds a totemic fascination for the author as an archetype of everything that has gone awry with human endeavour: Manhattan, where 'white men had focused their fretful intensity of power and money and yearning, pushing up buildings in hubris, in mad cockiness, filling streets with taxis and anxious people, and, finally, dying into drugs and inwardness.' (p. 277) The SF Masterworks edition's cover echoes this sentiment, with the Empire State Building which features in the work situated between the shattered remnants of two other skyscrapers, the outlines of which it is impossible not to view post-911 as representing the former World Trade Center.

Tevis lambasts organised religion through its representation as an historical curio as described by Bentley:
'I am not certain whether Holy Bible is a book of history or maintenance or poetry. It names many strange people who do not seem real […] As well as I understand it, Jesus claimed to be the son of God, the one who was supposed to have made heaven and earth. That perplexes me and makes me feel that Jesus was unreliable. Still, he seems to have known things that others did not know and was not a silly person, like those in Gone With The Wind, nor a murderously ambitious one, like the American presidents.

Whatever Jesus was, he was this thing called a 'great man'. I am not certain I like the idea of 'great men'; it makes me uncomfortable. 'Great men' often have had very bloody plans for mankind.' (pp. 140, 141-42).
The prostration of the intellect before the tyranny of monotheism is considered at greater length during Bentley's residence within the neo-fundamentalist community of Baleen he encounters towards the end of the novel, but which I will not address at length here.

Mockingbird plays with layers of symbolism in a deft and satisfying manner, for example the tableau that Mary Lou forms in the artificial python's cage at the zoo: 'she had to stand tiptoed and reach as far up as she could reach, just to catch the bottom of the fruit with her fingertips...”Why did you pick it?” I said.”I don't know,” she said. “”It seemed to be the thing to do.”' (pp. 41, 47) The scene amusingly parodies the Biblical Eve and the serpent retrospectively in the context of the narrative arc that follows and the fate the awaits Bentley prior to the text's resolution.

Tevis seems to disclose his own fondness for Kentucky's most famous export in ensuring that his protagonist is well-provided with what you would have thought to have been a near-impossible commodity, to acquire namely bourbon: 'I have a half bottle of whiskey – J.T.S. Brown Bourbon – and a pitcher of water and a glass on the table.' (p. 250)

Despite the consolations of mellowed alcohol, the melancholy air that pervades the work is encapsulated in the titular quote that reoccurs frequently in Bentley's mind after his initial exposure to it during his film studies left an enduring impression:
'Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods,' spoken by an old man to a young girl.' (p. 20)
The quote's lilting yet downbeat cast seems to colour much of Bentley's world-view, and he reaches for it frequently when unable to express himself in any other manner. 'It was my intention in beginning this to summarize what I have learned about human history and how that history appears to be coming to an end. But the prospect of trying actually to do it, after thinking about it for so long, is more than I am up to facing.' (p. 230).

The novel proposes that whilst a machine intelligence coming to consciousness may regret the fact of its own existence, humanity, although prey to the same exigencies of fate, appears better equipped to deal with its vagaries. The following exchange between Spofforth and Bentley occurs close to the end of the work, where the former's life is close to its cessation, and the latters is about to bloom fully:
'I am sick of life. I never wanted it.'
I stared at him. 'That's the name of the game. I never asked to be born either.' (p. 237)
That is not to say that Tevis, through the mouth of his protagonist, does not rue the fact that our species-being is not perhaps a little better equipped to deal with the tests to our patience that human interactions can present. In conversation with a sentient bus that he adapts for his own use, Bentley asks:
'Why are you so... so pleasant?' I said.
'We all are,' the bus said. 'All thought buses are pleasant. We were all programmed with Kind Feelings, and we like our work.'
'That's better programming than people get,' I thought, with some vehemence.
'Yes,' the bus said. 'Yes it is.' (p. 252)
It becomes evident during the course of the work that Bentley is the titular mockingbird, his solitary intelligence the song, and the edge of the woods the precipitous twilight of humanity:
'Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods,' the bus said.'
It was startling to hear that. 'You took those words from my mind?' I said.
'Yes. They are often in your mind.'
'What do they mean?'
'I don't know,' the bus said. 'But they make you feel something strongly.'
'Something sad?'
'Yes. Sad. But it is a sadness that is good for you to feel' (p. 258).
Mockingbird is beautifully structured, perfectly paced, artfully composed, and compelling in its subject matter. It is a most satisfying entry to the SF Masterworks series, and is to be commended to new readers without reservation.

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