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Excerpt: Reading Is Taboo in Walter Tevis' Harrowing Mockingbird

Discover a blistering dystopia from the mind behind The Man Who Fell to Earth

Mockingbird Walter Tevis excerpt

Walter Tevis is known for his sci-fi novels, as well as his intellectual thrillers such as Queen's Gambit. His 1980 dystopian novel Mockingbird has been described as "a combination 1984 and Brave New World, with a dash of the movie Escape from New York thrown in." The book has increased relevance in our isolated and high-tech world, and is currently being adapted into a movie by director Alma Har'el. 

Mockingbird is set in a robot-filled future in which literacy is forbidden for humans. Spofforth, the android dean of New York University, wants to die, but his commitment to humanity has entrapped him. 

Spofforth hires Paul Bentley, a human from Ohio who claims to have learned to read, to transcribe the text from silent movies. In the excerpt below, Bentley finds evidence in these tapes of forbidden intimacy—and questions that reveal the true horrors of the world around him.  

Read on for an excerpt from Mockingbird, then download the book!





By Walter Tevis


I saw a group immolation today, for the first time in my life. Two young men and a woman had seated themselves in front of a building that made and dispensed shoes along Fifth Avenue. They had apparently poured some flammable liquid over themselves, because they looked wet. I saw them just as the woman applied a cigarette lighter to the hem of her denim skirt and pale flames began to engulf them like a yellow blossom of gauze. They must have been filled with all the right drugs, because there was no sign of pain on any of their faces—only a kind of smiling—as the flame, pale in the sunlight, began first to redden them, then to make them black. Several passersby stopped and watched. Gradually a bad smell began to fill the area, and I left.

I had heard of such immolations, always in groups of three, but I had never seen one before. They are said to happen frequently in New York.

I have found a book—a real book! Not one of the slim readers that I studied from in Ohio and that only told of Roberto and of Consuela and of their dog Biff, but a real, thick palpable book.

It was simple. I merely opened one of the hundreds of doors along the vast stainless-steel hallway outside my office and there, in the center of a small bare room, in a glass case, sat this large, fat book. I lifted the top of the case, which was thick with dust, and picked it up. It was heavy, and its pages were dry to the touch and yellow. The book is called Dictionary. It contains a forest of words.


Now that I have begun keeping this journal I find myself paying more attention to oddities during the day than I used to—so that I may record them here at night in the archives, I suppose. Noticing and thinking are sometimes a strain and a bafflement and I wonder if the Designers were aware of that when they made it almost impossible for the ordinary citizen to make use of a recorder. Or when they had us all taught that earliest learned wisdom: ‘When in doubt, forget it.’

For example, I have been noticing an odd thing at the Bronx Zoo, or several odd things. I have been taking a thought bus out to the zoo on Wednesdays for over a month and I find that I always see only five children there—and they always seem to be the same children. They all wear white shirts and they are always eating ice-cream cones and—perhaps most odd—they always seem terribly excited and filled with fun to be at the zoo. The other zoo visitors, my age or older, often look at them dreamily and smile, and, when looked at, the children point toward an animal “, an elephant, say, and shout, ‘Look at the big elephant!’ and the older people smile at one another, as if reassured. Something seems sinister about this. I wonder if the children are robots?

And more sinister, if they are robots, where are the real children?

Every time I go into the House of Reptiles I see a woman in a red dress. Sometimes she is lying on a bench near the iguanas, asleep. Other times she may be pacing around idly. Today she was holding a sandwich in her hand and watching the python as it slid through branches of a synthetic tree, behind the glass of its cage. Putting that down now, I wonder about the python. It is always sliding through those branches. Yet I seem to remember from the time long ago when I was a child (how long ago that was, I of course have no way of knowing) that the big snakes in zoos were usually asleep, or bunched up into dormant lumps on a corner of their cases, looking nearly dead. But the python at the Bronx Zoo is always sliding and darting its tongue and provoking gasps from the people who come into the House of Reptiles to see it. Could it be a robot?

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  • Red-ruffed lemur at the Bronx Zoo.

    Photo Credit: Jorge C. / Unsplash


Things have begun to flood over me. I feel shaken as I write this, shaken to report what I thought of today. Yet it was so obvious, so clear, once I saw it. Why have I never thought of it before? “It was during a film. An old woman was sitting on the front porch (if that’s what it is called) of a dark little house. She was in what was called a ‘rocking chair’ and holding a tiny baby in her lap. Then, looking worried, she held the baby up and the picture ended momentarily, as they do, and these words appeared on the screen ‘Ellen’s baby has the croup!’ And when the word ‘baby’ appeared on the screen I suddenly realized that I had not seen a real baby for longer than can be known! Yellows, blues, reds: years beyond numberings, and I had not seen a baby.

Where have the babies gone? And has anyone else asked this question?

And then the voice in me that comes from my childhood training says, ‘Don’t ask—relax.’

But I can’t relax.

I will lay this aside and take some sopors.


Nineteen. This is the highest number I can ever remember using. Nothing in my life has ever been worth this high a counting before.

Yet it would be possible, I suppose, to count the blues and yellows of one’s life. Useless, of course, but, it could be done. “Often in films I see large numbers. Often they are associated with war. The number 1918 seems especially common. I have no idea what to make of it. Could there have been a war that was fought for 1918 days? But nothing lasts that long. The mind reels to think of anything that long or that large or that extensive.

‘Don’t ask—relax.’ Yes, I must relax.

I must remember to eat some soybars and gravy before I take a sopor. For two nights together I have forgotten to eat.

Sometimes at night I study Dictionary, to learn new words, and at times that helps me become sleepy. But then at other times I find words that excite me. Often those are words the definitions of which elude me—like ‘disease’ or ‘algebra.’ I turn them over in my mind, and I read over their definitions. But those almost always contain other infathomable words, which then excite me further. And I am forced to take a sopor after all.

I don’t know how to relax.

The zoo used to help, but I haven’t gone there lately because of those children. I have nothing against robots, of course. But those children…


I went to the zoo today and spoke to the woman in red. She was sitting on the bench by the iguanas and I sat beside her and said, ‘Is the python a robot?’

She turned and looked at me. There was something strange, mystical, about her eyes—like those of someone under hypnosis. Yet I could see that she was thinking, and that she wasn’t drugged. She said nothing for a long time and I began to think she was not going to answer and would pull back into her Privacy the way we are all taught to do when we are troubled by strangers. But just as I started to shrug and get up she said, ‘I think they are all robots.’

I looked at her, astonished. Nobody ever talked quite that way. And yet it was the way that I had been thinking, for days. It was so disturbing that I got up and left, without thanking her.

Leaving the House of Reptiles I saw the five children. They were all together, all holding ice-cream cones, their eyes wide with excitement. They all looked at me, smiling. I looked away…


One compelling thing that keeps appearing in the films is a collection of people called a ‘family.’ It seems to have been a very common arrangement in ancient times. A ‘family’ is a group of people that are often together, that even appear to live all together. There are always a man and a woman—unless one of them is dead; and even then that one is often spoken of, and images of the dead one (‘photographs’) are to be found near the living, on walls and the like. And then there are the younger ones, children of different ages. And the surprising thing, the thing that seems characteristic of these ‘families,’ is that the man and woman are always the mother and the father of all of the children! And there are older people sometimes too, and always they seem to be the mothers and fathers of either the man or the woman! I hardly know what to make of it. Everyone seems to be related.

And further, much of the sense of feelingfulness that these films have seems profoundly connected with this being related. And it seems to be presented in the films as “good.

I know, of course, not to try being a moral judge of anyone. And certainly not of people from another time. I know the life in the films is contrary to the dictum ‘Alone is best’; but that is not what bothers me. After all, I have spent days at a time with other people—have even seen the same students every day for weeks. It is not the Mistake of Proximity “that bothers me about those ‘families.’ I think it may be a kind of shock that the people take such risks. They seem to feel so much for one another.

I am shocked and saddened by it.

And they talk so much to one another. Their lips are moving all the time, even though no audible words come out.


I had gone to bed last night thinking of those risks the people long ago were taking in their ‘families’ and then the first thing this morning I went through a film that showed just how serious those risks could be.

On the screen an old man was dying. He lay in a strange old-fashioned bed at his home—not in a hospital dying center—and he was surrounded by his family. A clock with a pendulum was on the wall. There were girls, boys, men, women, old people—more than I could count. And they were all unhappy, all crying. And then when he died, two of the younger girls threw their bodies across his and heaved with silent sobbing. There was a dog at the foot of the bed, and when the man died it laid its head on its paws and seemed to grieve. And the clock stopped.

The whole spectacle of unnecessary pain upset me so that I left the film unfinished and went to the zoo.

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