If you’re an old movie fan, either from being old or just because you love old movies, you might know Walter Tevis from his first novel, The Hustler (1959). It was made into a stunning Paul Newman movie. Jeez, that’s a helluva start for a young novelist. Wait, that happened to Larry McMurtry too. (Note to self, see how many young novelists were made famous by Paul Newman, it might be worth a blog.) Tevis’ last novel, The Color of Money (1984) was also made into a movie starring Paul Newman. I’m sure the first and last thing is unique.

Tevis was forgotten for a while until David Bowie made his second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), into a weird quirky flick in 1976. Don’t rush out and watch that movie though, they ruined the book, but do read the novel, it’s quiet and lovely and should resonate with your soul. (You can watch the film afterward to see what Bowie does in the role, and there is another film version and a Showtime TV series to check out too.)

Most young people today will know of Walter Tevis if they read the credits or reviews of Queen’s Gambit (1983), the hit series on Netflix. The TV show is excellent but the book is better. All this media exposure has made Tevis (1928-1984) a minor forgotten writer with some fame.

You might have figured out by now that I’m a fan of Walter Tevis. That’s even more true now that I just finished his 1980 novel Mockingbird. What a strange trip it was. I thought it a perfect novel for the 2020s because it is about artificial intelligence and the decline of the human race and our civilization. Mockingbird is set in the 25th century but I don’t think it will take us that long.

I don’t want to give any spoilers to this novel because it‘s the kind of story that you should just unfold slowly as you read. But I do need to say enough to get you to read Mockingbird. Mockingbird has over two thousand customer ratings on Amazon with a 4.5 average.

For most of the novel Tevis tightrope walks between existentialism and nihilism and has a brush with Christianity. I will tell you the ending made me happy because of how Tevis ties up the story and his philosophical speculations. Tevis doesn’t stick to any one philosophy. He appears to be extrapolating on the decline and corruption of liberal thought but what he projects for conservatives isn’t any better. Walter Tevis was one of those tortured souls that tried mightily to figure out reality in his fiction.

The story opens with Robert Spofforth, a robot who looks like a black man but has an artificial brain. Later in the novel, Spofforth is described as the most beautiful object humans ever created. Bob is a level 9 robot, the most advanced of his kind, but the only unit of this model that hasn’t destroyed himself. He has been programmed so he can’t commit suicide. Currently, he is the Dean of New York University, but he might be the most intelligent and most powerful being left on the planet.

Spofforth hires Paul Bentley to come to New York because he’s the only human being he can find that can read. Bentley’s narrative is the main part of the novel. Paul then meets Mary Lou, an iconoclast living among the sheep, and teaches her to read. But Bob didn’t hire Paul to teach people to read but to translate the intertitles in silent films. Bob doesn’t want humans to learn to read again.

The human population has shrunk from billions to just a few million. Robots care for all their needs, but very poorly because robots are also a declining species. Humans routinely consume drugs, have a lot of casual sex, and pursue inner development.

There are elements in Mockingbird that will remind you of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a slight hint of The Road. And if you’ve read The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett, Mockingbird reminded me of it too. And there’s a little bit of Cool Hand Luke in the story. (Another Paul Newman connection).

And if that’s not enough to get you to read Mockingbird there’s a cat named Biff. I’m off to read The Steps of the Sun (1983) but it hasn’t gotten kind reviews. I also bought The King is Dead (2023) which reprints his 1981 collection Far from Home and adds many unpublished works.

James Wallace Harris, 5/20/23

One thought on ““Mockingbird” by Walter Tevis

  1. I read Mockingbird a few years ago and it immediately hit a nerve. Its a cautionary tale of what we may become if we are not acutely aware of how a dependence on technology can easily become a total surrender to it.

    What is even more troubling is that researchers have been documenting a steady decline on IQ tests over the first two decades of the 21st century in Western industrialized nations. There are no concrete explanations as to why but some researchers theorize that individuals have become overly dependent on computers/AI to solve mundane/simple tasks (navigation, simple math, spelling). These areas of the brain are not being stimulated.

    Unfortunately, Tevis may have prophesied our collective future.


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