Sunday, April 22, 2012

#153: Mockingbird, #91: The Fountains of Paradise


“Reading is the subtle and thorough sharing of the ideas and feelings by underhanded means. It is a gross invasion of Privacy and a direct violation of the Constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Age. The Teaching of Reading is equally a crime against Privacy and Personhood. One to five years on each count.”
"Don't ask. Relax."
"Distant and clear in the pale dawn it stood, higher than anything else outside: the Empire State Building, the high grave marker for the city of New York..."
Walter Tevis's Mockingbird is a little-known masterwork of science fiction that deserves a place amongst the classics of the genre. First, let me warn you: as with most dystopian science fiction, Mockingbird is not a fun, easy-going read.
It is bleak, dreary, and depressing, chronicling a future in which the human population of Earth has decreased to about 19 million individuals. Drugs and Rules of Privacy are the mainstays of what little civilization is left, and things like conversation and family life are but distant memories. Reading, too, has vanished from human life. The world of Mockingbird is somewhat like a combination of the drugged-out Brave New World, the depressing totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the society which fears real learning, emotion, and books, and maintains a worshipful attitude towards wall-sized televisions in Fahrenheit 451, and finally, the robot-run stagnant society of the short story, "The Evitable Conflict", from I, Robot.
Mockingbird is certainly a chilling novel, made all the more bleak and hauntingly real by its very realistic extrapolation of current societal norms: laziness, drug-abuse, escape from reality, and focus on inner pleasure. In the world of Mockingbird, robots run everything,  because humans no longer have the drive or capacity to work themselves. Humankind has been reliant on robots for so long that they are incapable of doing much else besides watching, ingesting soporific pills (which consequently inhibit fertility, slowly killing off the human race), and smoking marijuana. In this bleak, child-less world, lives the most intelligent robot ever created, Robert Spofforth. He is essentially running New York City, in addition to serving as the dean of NYU, an institution that does not resemble a modern institute of learning in any way. Spofforth wishes to commit suicide, but his programming will not allow him.
The other two central characters are humans named Paul Bentley, a man who learns to read, and who becomes the main protagonist of the story, and Mary Lou, a woman who he falls in love with. Mockingbird contains many powerful scenes in its length as it chronicles Mary Lou and Bentley's falling in love, Spofforth's jealousy at their relationship, and Paul's exile and return from prison. The robots in this novel are characterized excellently, in a chillingly dull and manufactured way. The robot children at the zoo in which Mary Lou lives are especially creepy. The toaster factory scene is also great, an example of how pathetic the world of Mockingbird has truly become. Ironically, Spofforth seems to exhibit more human emotion than any human in the novel, Bentley and Mary Lou excepted. This is due to the fact that his brain is based on that of a man who was once real; a rather melancholy, but brilliant man.
The plot is mostly a tale of Bentley's journey through life, as he moves to New York, is Detected by Spofforth, sent to jail, escapes, and meets a group of religious puritans who live in what appears to be a fallout shelter. Mockingbird maintains its bleak and dreary tone throughout the majority of its length, until a small tinge of hope is given at the end, ironically this tinge of hope includes a suicide, which is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever read in science fiction.
The bottom line is, Mockingbird is a bleak masterwork of dystopian literature that is perhaps more accurate than any other speculative fiction that I've read so far. it certainly deserves more notoriety than it is given. This hidden gem is filled with power and tragedy, and it has some serious things to say about the human condition. It is one of the most observant and powerful works of science fiction in terms of what it has to say about humanity as a whole, and what the future will be like if we continue to keep to ourselves, enhance our lives with drugs, and begin to rely on mechanical entities to preserve our race. Highly recommended.

The Fountains of Paradise:

"Through long and bitter experience, Rajasinghe had learned never to trust first impressions, but also never to ignore them."
"Since women are better at producing babies, presumably Nature has given men some talent to compensate. But for the moment I can’t think of it"
"I am unable to distinguish clearly between your religious ceremonies and apparently identical behavior at the sporting and cultural functions you have transmitted to me."
"The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason.
If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues."

"The fates could not possibly be so malevolent, now that he had only a few hundred meters to go.
He was whistling in the dark, of course. How many aircraft had crashed at the very edge of the runway, after safely crossing an ocean? How many times had machines or muscles failed when there were only millimeters to go? Every possible piece of luck, bad as well as good, happened to somebody, somewhere. He had no right to expect any special treatment."

The Fountains of Paradise is undoubtedly a classic of science fiction, often cited as one of SF grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's best works. I found Fountains to be quite enjoyable; it's not ultra-revolutionary or mind-bending, it is simply pure, smart science fiction -- Golden-Age sci-fi ideals blended together with Clarke's considerable (and often pioneering) scientific knowledge to back them up. The Fountains of Paradise is a typical science fiction story through and through (although that cannot be said for many books of this diverse genre!), much like Asimov's Foundation Trilogy or Crichton's Jurassic Park.
Overall,  The Fountains of Paradise is light, fun, and surprisingly humorous in sections, and the reader gets caught up in the enthusiasm for discovery, engineering and science that Clarke creates, mostly through the main character: a likable engineer with big goals named Vannevar Morgan. Morgan is easy to sympathize with from the beginning. He embarks on a quest to build a "space elevator", which would link Earth to space, thus making for easier space travel. Most of the novel is centered around Morgan's quest to build this gigantic Orbital Tower, on the top of a mountain that an ancient order of monks believes to be sacred. Throughout this novel, science clashes with religion and mysticism and mystery, all of which happen to be in decline in the 22nd century of Clarke's imagined Earth. Early passages of the novel mention an ancient king, Kalidasa, who inhabited Taprobane, the island on which the Tower is to be built, lending a sort of mythic quality to the novel's introduction.
However, Clarke shows science and human ingenuity taking precedent over the mysticism and religion of the past as Morgan eventually triumphs over the ancient order of monks who refuse to vacant their mountain-top monastery so he can build his Orbital Tower. The quotations spread before large segments of the novel are often anti-religious, but were some of the most interesting parts of the novel to me. Clarke's insight into the nature of religion and its role in humanity becomes a huge part of this novel, although it is not always in the foreground of the plot.
As to be expected with Clarke's work, there is more than a tinge of Hard SF in certain sections of this novel, mostly explaining why there are certain problems to be avoided and contained in the Tower's construction, but these explanations did not become too long-winded, complicated, or unnecessary by my judgement. Clarke also shows off his trademarked accurate foresight into the future in this novel, predicting the Internet with omnipresent "consoles" that can access any source of information in the world. Yet another layer that Clarke adds to the novel is mankind's first contact with another intelligent species, via a "Starglider" communications device sent out by an unknown alien race, which is referenced several times and becomes important in an admittedly bizarre and unexpected epilogue.
All in all, this novel made me appreciate Clarke's vast knowledge of science even more than I had previously. Coupled with his insight and philosophy on religion and mankind's future, Clarke's scientific knowledge makes for an intellectual reading experience to say the least. This novel certainly deserves its status as a classic of science fiction.

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