Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
In the far distant future, an academic, Paul Bentley, moves to Columbia University in New York City for the summer because he’d like to teach a skill he has recently discovered–reading. The head of the University is Bob Spofforth, a Make Nine robot. Make Nines were top of the line, able to run multi-national corporations and dictate global policies. He’s been around for hundreds of years, so unlike his human counterparts on the faculty, he knows what reading is. He’s intrigued and has Paul come, though the robot has an ulterior motive. He wants Paul to translate title cards from early 20th century silent films, an odd project that Paul happily begins. Spofforth’s mechanical brain was patterned after a human brain, though the personal memories were taken out. Spofforth has occasional dreams that he thinks are memories from that human and hopes those memories will manifest themselves if he knows more about ancient human life.
In his spare time, Paul explores New York City. The citizens are typical for the age. They have a heightened sense of privacy, so much so that they barely make eye contact, let alone have conversations with other people. Humans are constantly taking drugs to feel no pain, which may be understandable since they seem to have little meaningful work. Robots do the manual work as well as services industry jobs. The local fast food joint has a Make Two behind the counter who is rather oblivious to people who burn themselves to death in the booths. Suicide by immolation is disturbingly common.
Paul’s exploration takes him to the zoo, where he discovers an odd woman. Mary Lou is there all the time–she lives there, “off the grid” as we’d say nowadays. No drugs, no smoking. Her big vice is pilfering sandwiches from a vending machine. Paul invites her back to his campus apartment where he teaches her to read. It’s an awkward situation at first as it violates the social idea of privacy. If Spofforth or others find out they will be in big trouble. Of course, reading is technically a crime (though nobody else knows how to do it), so they are in constant danger from that too.
The book is a fascinating hybrid of Fahrenheit 451 and Children of Men (did I mention there are no humans under the age of thirty?), though it certainly stands on its own. The vision of hedonistic culture leading humans into a solipcistic and consumerist mess is well thought out and completely fascinating. Robots were developed as labor saving devices but have apparently taken over almost every job. Supposedly people are free to pursue more worth-while goals like personal development but 99 per cent are just wandering from meaningless pleasure to meaningless pleasure. The bleakness of the story is tempered by the ultimate resolution of of the three main character’s journeys. This book is well worth hunting down (I had to get it through inter-library loan) and reading.
For deeper commentary on the book, check out A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast #110.