Wednesday 29 May 2024




The fruit is still sitting there. I want it to mean something, but it doesn't.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited my eldest daughter in Utrecht. She took me to an Aldi supermarket there. We filled our shopping bags and, before leaving, stood in a circle next to a payment machine. The invisible scanner totalled up all the items we'd bought and charged us appropriately. I checked the receipt to make sure and it was spot on. To a man of my age and time, this should be mind-blowing, though I'm so used to all the amazing technologies of the world that it was only a minor thrill. 

I wonder what mind-bending technology got Walter Tevis imagining the future. Whatever it was, I'm extremely grateful for its existence. 

Mockingbird tells the story of a possible outcome. Given the challenges that we face with the rapid grown in AI, perhaps this is a book everyone should be reading. It would certainly give them a pause for thought. A moment to take a breath and try and work out what kind of world we might want to aim towards. Surely that would be a sensible thing to do. 

Then again, this is only a work of fiction. 

"The first models of thought buses...broadcast music or pleasant thoughts into the heads of their passengers. Some of the night runs would send out erotic thoughts."

"Why don't they do that anymore? The equipment broke down?"

"No," he said. "As I told you...they don't break down. What happened was that nobody would get off the buses."   

Bentley is different to most of what is left of the human population. He has learned to read, something that doesn't go unnoticed by the Make Nine robot, Spofforth, the most perfect machine ever created who rules New York and maybe the rest of the planet. Spofforth hires Bentley to interpret the captions of ancient silent movies, a job that suits Bentley down to the ground. 

Unfortunately, the curiosity in human history that being literate kindles add to his levels of dissatisfaction and confusion about the nature of life. To find head space he visits the zoo. After a number of trips, it becomes clear that the setup is fake. The animals are always on the move and entertaining and there are always three children there eating ice creams. These children also happen to be the only children Bentley has ever seen.  

There also a beautiful woman living in the reptile house and it turns out she's real. She's also unusual in that she's given up taking the drugs that are freely on offer and prefers, instead, to experience life as an outcast. 

It's not long before Bentley is teaching Mary Lou to interpret text. She's far brighter than he is and picks it up quickly. When they later move in together and discover an ancient library, they have a new landscape to explore, one that takes them away from the isolated individuals who now form the population, the monotony of existence and the regular group suicides that occur on a regularly around the city. 

As their relationship grows, Spofforth is a constant observer. The human echoes in his machine mind create a desire in him that, as leader of all things, is easy for him to satisfy. 

The novel is told through the three central characters, mainly in journal form. This allows a real exploration of the thoughts of the protagonists as well as generating a driving plot that's always engaging. 

Mockingbird has really got me thinking about what lies ahead. Most of all, it has really shown me that there's no way I can visualise the distant future and what it might bring. In place of my own imagination, this novel has taken over. A world where humans are in deep decline and are on the brink of extinction, that's not a hugely unique vision. A place where robots have taken over, do all the thinking, producing and legislating, that's not so farfetched either. What I haven't really pictured before is a planet where the humans have failed and, because they have been unable to maintain any symbiotic relationship with people, so have the robots.

There are so many facets to Mockingbird and it's such a big story that I don't feel I can do it justice. It's the kind of book that it would be great to talk about in a bar or on a walk or in a book group. Other than the elements of the opening where I was slightly put off by the information and explanations, I was totally absorbed. 

Among many other things, it's a reminder of the wonder of reading. The way pages can sometimes be mirrors to gaze into; the link it gives us with other minds; he connections to places and histories that we would never ordinarily get to visit; and the range of emotions it can evoke without leaving the comfort of our homes. 

Three days now I've been sitting on this thought bus. I'm delighted that I finally reached my destination, but now have a thirst for travel and want to hop right back on. 

Ding Ding, next stop All The Sinners Bleed by SA Cosby    

"Why are you all pleasant?" I said. 

"We all are," the bus said. "All thought buses are pleasant. We were all programmed with Kind Feelings and we like our work.'

"That's better programming than people get," I thought with some vehemence. 

"Yes," the bus said. "Yes it is." 

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