I don’t read that much sci-fi , perhaps because I’m overly inclined to judge books by their covers and most in this genre have godawful artwork. I’m also disinterested in space sagas and tales of interplanetary conflict. I’m in the category of snobby readers who are more attracted by novels marketed as ‘speculative fiction’ as this has a more grown-up sound to it. I’ve just read and enjoyed one of these – Walter Tevis’ ‘Mockingbird’ which makes the Gollancz list of the SF Masterworks – a library of the “best SF ever written”.

Tevis is best known for the novels that have been adapted into successful movies with Paul Newman in ‘The Hustler’ & ‘The Color of Money’ and

David Bowie in ‘The Man Who fell To Earth’. Each of those stories focused on isolated individuals who were alienated from mainstream society. The ‘alien’ is literal in the case of the Bowie role.

waltertevis4Tevis described his ‘speculative’ work is an “extravagently imagined world peopled by real beings”. Mockingbird was inspired by the realization that less and less people are interested in reading, an alarming loss of literacy which has serious repercussions on the mental wellbeing of earthlings.

Tevis imagines a society where the invasion of privacy is treated as akin to a criminal act. Humans are served and increasingly dependent on a race of robots, existing rather than living on a diet of quick sex, trash TV and soft drugs. It is similar to the type of society John Lennon refers to in his song ‘Working Class Hero’ where people being “doped by religion, sex and TV”. No one reads and because the drugs and food products have fertility inhibiting content no children are born.

When Tevis wrote ‘Mockingbird’ he was a recovered alcoholic and he spoke of the novel as being about the process of sobering up and seeing the world for what it is free of the brain dulling substances and fear of closeness. In the novel Bentley shows how reading sustains the soul and liberates the mind from conditioned responses. When he reads the line : “only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods”, he doesn’t understand its meaning but the words fill him with sadness and longing. It is being able to feel and respond the the mystery of such emotions that seperates the human spirit from even the most sophisticated robots.

Recommended reading for those who think they don’t like Sci-Fi.

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