Mockingbird (Tevis novel)

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Not to be confused with Mockingbird, the fantasy novel by Sean Stewart.
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author Walter Tevis
Cover artist Fred Marcellino
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 247 pp
ISBN 0-385-14933-6
OCLC 5555669
LC Class PZ4.T342 Mo PS3570.E95

Mockingbird is a science fiction novel by Walter Tevis, published in 1980 by Doubleday. It was nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel.


While Tevis was teaching English literature at Ohio University, he became aware that the level of literacy among his students was falling at an alarming rate. That observation gave him the idea for this novel, set in a grim and decaying New York City of the 25th Century: the population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.


A central character is the dean of New York University, Spofforth, an android who has lived for centuries yet yearns to die. The novel opens with his failed attempt at suicide. Spofforth brings a teacher, Paul Bentley, to New York. Bentley has taught himself to read after a Rosetta Stone–like discovery of a film with words matching those in a children's primer. Bentley says he could teach others to read, but Spofforth instead gives him a job of decoding the written titles in ancient silent films. At a zoo, Bentley meets Mary Lou, explains the concept of reading to her, and the two embark on a path toward literacy. Spofforth responds by sending Bentley to prison for the crime of reading, and takes Mary Lou as an unwilling housemate. The novel then follows Bentley's journey of discovery after his escape from prison, culminating in his eventual reunion with Mary Lou and their assistance with Spofforth's suicide.


Anne McCaffrey commented, "I've read other novels extrapolating the dangers of computerization, but Mockingbird stings me, the writer, the hardest. The notion, the possibility, that people might indeed lose the ability, and worse, the desire to read, is made acutely probable."

When a new edition was published in 1999, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem, Pat Holt reviewed:[1]

"Real" life for humans has become so mechanical and without purpose that a great despondency has settled on the declining population. And because reading disappeared centuries before (perhaps during the era known as the "Death of Oil"), no one has a sense of history, of a shared past or of time altogether... The book often feels like a combination 1984 and Brave New World, with a dash of the movie Escape from New York thrown in. Children, raised in dormitories from birth, are taught that servicing personal needs is primary and that looking directly at others or talking in a companionable way is considered "invasion of privacy" and an official "Mistake." Platitudes are enforced as strategically as law - "quick sex is best," people are taught (and believe), so there are no couples, no relationships, no families. "Mandatory politeness" is also enforced; the phrase "don't ask; relax" has become so engrained in people's minds that they are uncomfortable questioning anything.
Into this bleak landscape come three who rebel - one man, one woman and one "Make Nine" robot (who's so advanced he's almost human). Watching the two humans, Bentley and Mary Lou, learn to read is perhaps the most engrossing part of the book. When Bentley first introduces the idea to Mary Lou by reading aloud to her, she stares at him: "Were you saying things that you heard in your mind from just looking at that book?" she asks.
At first, their ability to decode the strange and ancient letters they uncover is extremely limited, but soon they can decipher such things as the dictionary. It takes them a while to understand that it's not by accident or coincidence that words are grouped together behind certain letters. Often their conclusions about books are refreshingly original. After many readings of the Bible, for example, Bentley decides that Jesus Christ was a "mystical rabbi" and that the meaning of the word Satan is "enemy."[1]

Reviewing the 1999 edition, James Sallis declared that "Mockingbird collapses the whole of mankind's perverse, self-destructive, indomitable history, cruelty and kindness alike, into its black-humor narrative of a robot's death wish."[2]

PBS production[edit]

During one of his last televised interviews, Tevis revealed that PBS once planned a production of Mockingbird as a follow-up to its successful adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven (1980). The San Francisco Chronicle called Mockingbird "an unofficial sequel to Fahrenheit 451, for its central event and symbol is the rediscovery of reading."


External links[edit]