(Steve Hickman’s cover for the 1978 edition)
4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece)
“The growths beside her mouth moved like living tumors when she spoke.” (19)
There is nothing superfluous in Michael Bishop’s Stolen Faces (1977). Like some nightmarish condensate that gathers into waiting cups, it induces hellish visions. Metaphors and images of bodily decay, societal decadence, and strange rituals abound. I suspect that Bishop’s profoundly uncomfortable themes, deliberate plotting, and metaphorical/literary way of telling have prevented the novel from gaining a wider audience.
At first glance, Stolen Faces is a deceptively straightforward anthropological SF tale where an outsider arrives on a strange planet, learns about the native cultures, and is confronted with an unusual moral dilemma. But like the other Bishop novels I have read—And Strange At Ecbatan the Trees (variant title: Beneath the Shattered Moons) (1976) and his masterpiece, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975)—there is something deeply affective and rich in meaning beneath the surface.
Highly recommended for fans of social science fiction (and of course Michael Bishop’s more famous novels).
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)
Lucian Yeardance, recently demoted “all the way from shipboard astrogation-and-engineering position” to an “anonymous kommissariat” on the planet Tezactl (15), is confronted with a society completely unlike his own. Tezactl is a world deeply scarred and formed over the generations by the presence of a virulent disease called mumphormorsy. Even those who are now immune have developed deep pathologically hatred of those who are still infected—even placing small shriveled skull tokens representing the diseased near where they sleep.
Muphormorsy (clearly an analogue to Leprosy) in Yeardance’s day has been mostly wiped out except among a small percentage of the population. The disease causes a range of deformities, the disintegration of fingers and limbs, the loss of other extremities, scarring, and invites a massive range of other bacterial infections that transform the skin with rashes and tumors.
Yeardance is placed in command of the leprosarium which is segregated from the rest of society by the Long Quarantine. At first glance, Yeardance is perplexed not only by the muphormers themselves who desire above medical treatment “heartsease,” a “general term for any sort of comfort” including, “stimulants” (17) but also the treatment of the diseased by the general populace. There seems to be incredible disinterest in actually treating their symptoms and because of the society created by the Long Quarantine, re-integration is far from the dominate interest. Also, Yeardance begins to realize that he was sent to Tezactl because his superiors believed he could be cajoled into extreme inactivity. No one wants Tezactl society to change, Yeardance’s superiors would prefer the afflicted to die out altogether behind the walls of their enclosure—and there are deeper mysteries to unmask.
Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)
The most prevalent and fascinating metaphor is the mask. First, the society itself was something external plastered onto a world which eventually fused together more organically. The planet Tezactl was discovered by Tiago Sciarlin who had “an inordinate interest in ancient Mesoamerican culture” (90). At first sight of a large lagoon, Sciarlin decided to name his capital Tenochtitlan. Unlike a gated community modeled on some Tuscan vision, this “deliberate motif” (90) soon became something more. The “collective memory” of the planet’s eccentric founder became a foundation for an entire way of thinking: initially, “a great deal of this was artificial and stylized [the adoption of aztec ritual and culture], as if the planet’s citizens were seeking to impose an identity upon themselves rather than grow one naturally” (91).
The characters themselves are forced to take on a series of masks (and thus, roles). The muphormers are not simply victims but also have a part to play, a role where they generate an external mask, in this case, their own bodies. This act of rebellion might not seem like rebellion to the outsider. But they have taken on as an identifying badge something originally forced upon them by the rest of society. The capital city performs Aztec rituals and reenacts historical events from Earth. Lucian, when he heads to the capital to garner additional resources for the mumphormers, watches “a reenactment of the Meshi’Ka campaign against the Huaxtecans during the chieftaincy of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina. Circa 1460” (121).
Lucian throughout struggles to understand the meaning behind “performance.” And struggles to remove the mask he is forced to wear as Kommiseriat of the Tezactly Leprosarium. In doing so, takes on yet another role, that of the reluctant idealist.
Stolen Faces is a carefully constructed series of nested revelations. Bishop’s vision is one of the more thoughtful explorations of the influence of collective memory in the development of a culture I have encountered. Unlike many SF/fantasy novels that deploy Aztec themed ritual/societies, Bishop’s use is yet another mask.
Ritual. Deformity. Memory. Masks.
Find a copy.
(Patrick Woodroffe’s cover for the 1979 edition)
(Jonathan Weld’s cover of the 1977 edition)
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