Mockingbird (1980): Brave New World Meets THX 1138 in a Minor Literary Classic
Recommendation: Add Mockingbird to your must read list, especially if you are in the mode for a less violent, more intellectual dystopian view of the post-scarcity world or if you are a bit annoyed with everyone demanding to be treated as a special snowflake. Because at the end of the day, who needs a robot uprising when we will just hand over authority to them?
Mockingbird by Walter Tevis is considered a minor classic in literature, essentially Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 with robots. Although written in 1980, it could just as easily be mistaken for a 2018 cautionary tale about millenials written by Dave Eggers as a follow up to The Circle. Like Eggers, Tevis is no slouch of a writer; he is best known for movie adaptations of his other books, The Hustler and The Color of Money, and cult sci-fi The Man Who Fell to Earth (ah, David Bowie, we miss you). Mockingbird is not particularly accurate about robots, but it is very readable, especially as it builds momentum after the first few chapters, and unlike Brave New World and 1984, the human characters are much more likable.
In a post-scarcity future, robots have become ubiquitous and people no longer have to work. Instead, people focus on self-actualization and they prize personal privacy above any sort of human attachment or endeavor. Whereas 1984 had the newspeak "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength," the mantras imposed on the masses by the robot government in Mockingbird are the more pernicious "Don't ask, relax," "Quick sex is best,” and "When in doubt, forget it”. Like Fahrenheit 451, reading is against the law, although no one is actively burning books. In the midst of this robots-know-best regime, the population has declined dramatically and may be dwindling to the point of no return. Mockingbird also has the Brave New World journey through a post-apocalyptic, anarchic landslide outside of the tightly controlled, state run cities. But what Mockingbird has that these bona fide classics don’t have is a THX 1138 sensibility where the world is controlled by benevolent robots enabling people to self-medicate their own way into bliss. For the ambitious, ambitious being a relative term here, college now consists of advanced techniques in how to reach an orgasm only through controlled hallucinations; in the Future even touching yourself is too much of an effort and intrusion into your head space.
Without ever explicitly stating it, Mockingbird introduces the question of whether the care-taking robots are evil. Michael Bishop, the Nebula Award winning author, pointed out in his review for the Washington Post (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/) that the protagonist robot, Spoffoth, could be read as a mechanical Lucifer. Spoffoth is tasked with assisting mankind but who wants to be, literally, a fallen angel. Other biblical analogies are certainly hard to miss, especially when Mary Lou, a fugitive from the State, offers Paul a purloined sandwich and the opportunity to rebel in front of the python exhibit at the Zoo. And, nice touch, the python is a robot.
The review noted the book possibly would have been better if it had focused more on Spofforth, the robot, rather than Paul and Marylou, the Adam and Eve. And Bishop is right, Spofforth is not particularly interesting as a robot, except in probing what a truly suicidally depressed Marvin the robot from The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy would actually be like. Note: Spofforth is not played for comic relief, the suicidal depression is for real and has real consequences.
So robots as de facto angels? Maybe. Robots are certainly intended to be helpful in Mockingbird- they’ve taken over the means of production, act as daily servants, and do everything needed to allow humans to pursue inward self-actualization in an extreme outcome of the Human Potential Movement in the ‘60s that peaked with the EST training courses in the ‘70s. And robots have a touch of the supernatural; the autonomous vehicles can actually read a person's thoughts to determine the desired destination and change the music playlist.
But unlike angels, different models of robots can be very stupid. Some categories are matter-of-factly referred to as “moron robots” because they are basically factory automation with extremely limited scope of abilities, initiative, and intelligence. (See the Autonomy topic for more discussions of automation versus autonomy.) For example, robot factories can detect and recycle defects in manufacturing but not fix the root cause. And putting trust in robots as though they were angels representing our better selves may be unfounded, especially as there are no checks and balances. Angels presumably have God looking over their winged shoulders.
My recommendation is to read Mockingbird, especially if you are in the mode for a less violent, more intellectual dystopian view of the post-scarcity world or if you are a bit annoyed with everyone demanding to be treated as a special snowflake. Because at the end of the day, who needs a robot uprising when we will just hand over authority to them?
For an audio version of this review, simply click below...