I dropped by Galaxy Books in Sydney on my recent trip around the world, and I was pleased to find a few of the last remaining gems from the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. Chief among them is "Mockingbird" by Walter Tevis. "Mockingbird" is a remarkable novel about the loss and rediscovery of literacy, science, culture and simple human curiosity.
We take a lot of things for granted in a modern society. Very few of us understand how the things we use daily actually work beyond our own limited areas of expertise. "Mockingbird" looks forward to a time where almost no one understands anything about the machines that keep life moving. Has the machine that makes clothes forgotten how to make zippers? Live without them. Are the antidepressants dispensed to you every day slowly killing humanity? Oh well, at least they keep everyone quiet. This is definitely a world that's ending with a whimper rather than a bang.
Schools have been stripped down to teach the social norms of the day and almost nothing else. Teaching is conducted by simple robots and via video recordings. Everything has been decided and planned for them by the ruling class of robots, including how much they can develop as individuals and how they are allowed to relate to others. They are never taught anything more than they would need to become another harmless, emotionless, ignorant, unquestioning, superfluous cog. To quote the female lead: "they have to deactivate machines to find things to pay us to do". Innovation, creativity, introspection, and even reading itself are almost extinct. People are conditioned not to pay attention to one another, to avoid displaying emotions, and are continuously drugged. This is a bleaker future even than "Brave New World", in which at least people had their pick of diversions and pursued their shallow lives with gusto.
The story follows two humans and a clone with a synthetic brain who is the last and best of the ruling class of robots manufactured to keep things running. These three are the only individuals with their eyes open, who notice and question the routine existence everyone else accepts. The tension and drama in the book is whether these people can preserve their own bubble of awareness, to teach themselves to fight back the decay and disrepair that surrounds them even as they rediscover basic concepts like intimacy and friendship.
This is a great book, and highly recommended.