Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
Earlier this year, I waxed lyrical about a violent supernatural horror novel. It was called Blackbirds and penned by Chuck Wendig. Well, he’s emerged in sequel land with Mockingbird (Angry Robot, 2012). We’re now one year further on and Miriam Black is not quite playing the part of the trailer park trophy wife. She’s not actually married, only living with Louis but, thanks to his entrepreneurial skills, he’s driving the roads with his truck, salting away saving for that rainy day, while she’s scanning goods at a local convenience store. It’s the kind of life the brain dead enjoy but, as you can imagine, it leaves our heroine with a seething pile of resentment.
So where are we with the story? Well, not that I always want to show off my classical education, but we have to dive into the mythology of Ancient Rome to understand the big plot point at work here. You see those Romans believed you could tell what the Gods (sorry, there were a lot of them to keep track of) wanted you to do to stay on their right side — remember, if you pissed off any one of the Gods, he or she could turn you into an animal or chain you to a rock and have a big bird eat out your liver. I mean, what’s the point of having god-like powers if you never use them? So it was important to know what you were expected to do. The priests of the day identified these messages in a variety of ways, but one of the most popular was watching the flight patterns and general behaviour of birds. This was the study of the auspices, part of the general trade of augury. In these books, we’re concerned with the oblativa, i.e. the Gods send the signs and signals, usually in the hope of achieving a better balance in society. In more recent times, societies defined different types of omen, a natural phenomenon that suggests what will happen in the future. In theory, such events can be foretelling good or bad outcomes but, such has been the pessimism of the ages that we largely think of omens as ominous, i.e. favouring the bad. If you check out superstitions, you’ll find blackbirds are associated with death, often signifying the presence of souls who are trapped on Earth. It’s also appropriate to remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird (courtesy of Harper Lee) albeit, in the novel, the birds are valued for their song and are inherently good — not quite how they are portrayed in this book.
The issue is one of Fate or, following the Enlightenment, determinism. Miriam Black has the power to see how someone will die. For years, her attempts to prevent the deaths she foresees end in disaster. Then she makes a breakthrough. The survival of Louis is a testament to her new understanding. Except she’s not entirely sure what she understands, particularly as she’s now afflicted by visions. These voices are just so annoyingly cryptic. Just what is she supposed to do? More importantly, why is she supposed to do it? Surely, these predictive birds don’t really care how many people are killed? I mean, looking at matters objectively, many of the people who die are leading worthless lives, mired in poverty, engaging in petty crime and often abusing drugs. What value could there be to society to give such people an extra few years? They blight the lives of those they rob and burglarise, they burden the state if they fall ill and need hospital treatment. How much easier life would be for everyone if responsible citizens culled the worthless spongers. And just think how much more efficient this culling would be if those citizens were led by an auger who could see their future lives, who could be certain just how worthless these lives would be. Perhaps Miriam Black should join forces with these citizens, contribute her supernatural gift to ensuring a better future for the majority. This is determinism in service to utilitarianism.
I like the way the story is developing. It’s carefully advancing the moral debate about the way we react to death. We’re a selfish species, fighting to prolong our own lives, using every reasonable opportunity to get medical treatment to keep ourselves healthy. This reflects the broader biological imperative of competition. The fittest survive and tend to do well. We’re quite often comfortable with the notion the less fit die younger because they receive only second-class care. Redistribution of resources to give everyone access to the same quality of care has never worked. The wealthy, i.e. the powerful, have always used their money and authority to jump the queues, to get the best doctors and the most effective treatments. There’s always been a self-perpetuating elite from Roman times when the lifestyles of the rich depended on the exploitation of the slaves, to modern societies where the less advantaged are wage-slaves, offering both direct and indirect support to the lifestyles of the rich. So why should there be Gods sending birds to warn Miriam Black of death on a semi-industrial scale? Anyone with eyes can see death all around them.
I think Chuck Wendig has slightly toned down the intensity of the prose in Mockingbird. There’s a more melancholic feel to this narrative as our heroine struggles to define herself as a person. She’s agonising over her relationship with her family and Louis while trying to act rationally as the “Trespasser” keeps interrupting her dreams, both sleeping and waking. It’s enough to make even a saint weep and, sure as eggs is eggs, Miriam is no saint. So this is highly enjoyable and cleverly advancing the plot. It’s going to be interesting to see how the series develops.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For a review of another book by Chuck Wendig, see Blackbirds.