Book Review: Stolen Faces, Michael Bishop (1977)

(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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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Stolen Faces, Michael Bishop (1977)”

  1.      I just read this review, because this is one of many books that I bought many years ago but never actually got around to reading, and I was still curious as to what the book was about. In those days I often bought books that seemed intriguing based on the back-cover blurb, or other reviews or opinions I read elsewhere, but which, on closer examination, seemed to be more difficult to tackle than I originally thought. As a result, I still have many, many books that I fear I may never be able to get involved in, even though the plot summaries still seem interesting.
         I noted that spoilers were included, but felt I could read on anyway, because, if I ever do read the book, it will likely be years ahead, and by then I will have forgotten the spoilers.
         Well, I hardly understood what the story was about even from the review given here, and, even now, I’m not sure what the spoilers are.
         If I am that confused about it only a minute or two after reading this review and plot summary, I just wonder if that augurs extremely poorly for my ability to understand this book if I do actually get to read it one day. I suspect that, intriguing though Bishop’s novels might be, he might be one of the more difficult authors to get into, and I might do better to read many other books by easier-to-understand authors first, and hopefully, the more science-fiction I read, the better my chances might become of being able to understand works by the more difficult authors, such as I suspect Bishop is.
         If anyone (the reviewer, or any other readers) have any thoughts on this, and would either agree or disagree with my assessment, I would be very interested to hear from them. Thanks.

    1. “Well, I hardly understood what the story was about even from the review given here, and, even now, I’m not sure what the spoilers are.”

      My apologies (my reviews are often more analysis than summary). The book is simple — as I said, “an outsider arrives on strange planet, learns about the native cultures, and is confronted with an unusual moral dilemma” and the dilemma is a massive society changing disease…

      And, I mentioned, “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, his superiors would prefer the afflicted to die out altogether behind the walls of their enclosure.”

      That is the entire plot.

      The spoilers have to do with the nature of the disease. It takes him a while to figure out that no one wants anything done — that is a spoiler. It’s a deceptively simple premise which take a while to unfold — in gorgeous and emotionally engaging fashion.

    2. Michael, it is worth noting that I prefer literary/experimental (i.e. what some people call “difficult” or “hard to get into”) social SF. So, keep that in mind when selecting your own reads from my reviews/ratings.

      1. But, I think Bishop is one of the greatest, and unfortunately infrequently read, anthropologically inclined SF authors of the 70s/80s. And yes, the lack of popularity for this book in particular might be because of his fascination with difficult themes. But, what is appealing is the upright morality of his heroes despite these situations. So, the works are hardly nihilistic….

        I recommend reading the SF Encyclopedia entry on him.

        http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/bishop_michael

  2.      Thanks for your comments, Joachim. I wasn’t meaning to imply that your review was inadequate, and assumed that the shortcoming was my own. Perhaps your description was quite adequate for people with more understanding of this type of story than myself, but I was just somehow not quite able to put the pieces together in my mind.
         I was merely surmising that the book might be difficult, since, as I said, I haven’t read it – nor anything by Bishop except a short story, “Blooded on Arachne”, which I didn’t really understand. Even so, Bishop does interest me, from what I have read about him; but I fear that my interest in certain kinds of science-fiction may outstrip my actual ability to understand it in detail – sadly.

        1. Michael, of course I know about this collection! I’m addicted to The Internet Speculative Fiction Database so I’ve memorized all the names of his collections… haha

    1. I’ve read three — Stolen Faces, And Strange At Ecbatan the Trees, and the first edition (it was rewritten) of A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire. The best was A Funeral. He won a Nebula award for his novel No Enemy But Time and numerous other major awards (and endless pages of Locus, Hugo, Nebula nominations) for his shorter works.

      also…

      If you’re interested, would you like to write a guest post? It could be a review of a single short story/collection/or novel. (I’m putting together an extensive guest post series on Bishop for this very reason)

  3. I was very disappointed in this one.You agreed on my assessment of “Transfigurations”,which I thought was only a three star book,but that one was considerably better than SF.The main flaw in the other novel,was that it too long I thought,but seemed to show promise from the onset,unlike this much shorter book.

    At least “Tranfigurations” was clear and coherent,if tedious,but SF was muddled,difficult to follow,and most of the time didn’t know what it was about.The most interesting aspect about the book,those who no longer have the disease,but segregated because of their deformities,is simply not conveyed with any clarity and becomes confused within the plot.

    I chose SF because it was of shorter length than “A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire”,but if I didn’t find satisfaction with these two,I wonder if I’ll find any with any of his books.The novella upon which “Transfigurations” was expanded upon,might be alright.

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