Completed 9/1/2021, Reviewed 9/2/2021
This book is kind of a cross between Brave New World and “Fahrenheit 451”. It’s a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel where reading is outlawed and what remains of the human population lives in a constant drugged, illiterate, sterile, television-obsessed society “served” by robots. This book got under my skin and kept me in a state of despair. I was profoundly moved by the decay of civilization depicted. Tevis is the author of many famous books, including “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, “The Hustler”, “The Color of Money”, and “The Queen’s Gambit. Yet, I had never heard of him. In this book, his prose and world-building are excellent. Reading it is intense as he vividly depicts the end of human life at the hands of a narcissistic robot.
Robert Spofforth is a Make 9, the most advanced robot ever made. The Make 9s’ brains were cloned from one individual and then modified to have all personal memories removed. Of course, that never works out perfectly. He’s one of the last of the Make 9s and basically controls North America through control of the lesser robots. He is the dean of NYU and has a human faculty member, Paul. Through the discovery of a film of a children’s reading class as well as some beginner readers, Paul learns to read. He also discovers a dictionary and chess manuals and his reading ability and comprehension soon escalates. At the Bronx Zoo, Paul meets Mary Lou who is living off the grid. She doesn’t take sopor, a drug laced with a fertility inhibitor, or smoke pot. They fall in love, Paul stops taking the drugs as well, and he teacher her to read. Spofforth becomes jealous, has Paul arrested for teaching reading and breach of privacy and sends him to prison. He takes Mary Lou as his wife, though he has no sex organs. Mary Lou learns Spofforth’s secret plans as Paul tries to find a way out of prison.
North America of this future time is easily an extrapolation of where society is now. Reading is actually outlawed. Individuality and privacy were so cherished that when taken to the extreme, community and thus society breaks down. Robots, originally made to serve humans, keep them enslaved. Population is maintained by a computer that determines if more or fewer children should be born, spiking the common drug sopor with a fertility inhibitor. However, there are no children to be seen, except robots. Television is ultra-violent. The mantras taught in school are (something like) “Don’t ask, relax!” and “Quick sex is best!” Even the university teaches nothing but propaganda, without the use of books. It’s very, very depressing because I see this happening today as Tevis saw this when he wrote the book in 1980.
There are only three characters, Spofforth, Paul, and Mary Lou. I thought it was interesting that Spofforth is black. As far as he knows, he’s the only black Make 9 and doesn’t know why he was made as such. He’s a narcissist. He controls New York and pretty much all of North America through his advanced intelligence and personality. He also has some human emotions and remembers dreams from the brain from which he was created. It’s because of these that does what he does. He’s trying to recreate something that haunts him.
Paul gets the most page time. We learn his story as he records a journal, then as he learns to read and write, writes a journal, so his narration is in first person. He’s a professor from Ohio temporarily at NYU. His process of learning is extremely detailed, as one would imagine someone learning something new would experience. As his learning progresses, so does the complexity of his journal. And as he comes off the pot and sopor, his emotions become more complex as well.
Mary Lou probably gets the least amount of book time although she has just as big a part in the story as the other two. She begins the story free of pot and sopor because they make her sick. She has learned that the robots were made to serve humans, so she survives by bossing the lesser models around. This is how she gets food and keeps from being arrested. She provides the little bit of humor found in the book.
The writing is excellent. The book has the feel of a 50’s pulp novel, but none of its flaws. The prose is mature and intense. The world-building is also amazing. I thought the New York of this future was very believable. Usually in books like this set in the future, everything has already collapsed. Here, Tevis describes everything in the process of collapsing. I thought it was extremely well done.
I give this book five stars out of five. I was profoundly moved by it, so much so that at times I had to put the book down regularly just to get out of the funk it sucked me into. Even now, writing this review the day after finishing the book and starting a comical fantasy novel, I am reexperiencing the feelings I had reading it. This doesn’t happen too often. Like “Fahrenheit 451” and “Brave New World”, I don’t recommend going into this book unless you are in the mood for something pretty heavy. It’s an excellent book and very readable, but can put you in quite a bummer state.