Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 1998


By F. Paul Wilson & Matthew Costello

Warner, 1998, 343 pages, $23
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

The fiction of F. Paul Wilson has come full circle. He broke through with science fiction over two decades ago, became a bestselling author when he moved to the horror field, and then departed the horror field for suspense novels and medical thrillers. With Masque (Wilson’s third collaborative novel in a row, following Nightkill and Mirage), Wilson is firmly in science fiction territory again. Costello and Wilson not only collaborated on their prior novel, Mirage, but together they wrote fictional new stories set in an sf future for the Sci-Fi Channel.

The world of Masque is a different sf reality from Wilson’s previous sf novels, such as a the LaNague trilogy (Healer, Wheels Within Wheels, and An Enemy of the State) or the hardboiled Dydeetown World. The vision of Wilson and Costello is one of a fragmented, chaotic, post-apocalyptic corporate dystopia.

Two “gloms” (foreshortened from conglomerate, no doubt) dominate the landscape, and the battleground is genetics. The motto seems to be that if one can control the building blocks of humanity, then one can control humanity itself. Most people either work for the gloms, or live in slum-like freezones. The future is as grim as the darker cyberpunk novels, though the focus here in not cyberspace, but innerspace.

In this world we find Tristan, the protagonist, an agent for one of the gloms, Kaze. Tristan is no ordinary agent. In the first place, he is indentured to the glom, the carrot of freedom, or selfhood, as he terms it, driving his missions. In the second, and the reason for his indenture, is that Tristan is a mime, a person capable of altering his DNA to assume different aspects, called masques. He can be male or female (and some masques can be other things altogether, not defined by sex).

The Kaze Glom is locked in a battle for dominance with its rival glom, Flagge. Both are constant looking for that one edge that will gain them total victory over the other. To this end, Tristan is sent on a major mission, deep into Flagge territory. This mission is presented to Tristan as the mission that may well finally free him from his duty to Kaze, and give him selfhood, where he can lead a life separate from his metamorphic state. he might even settle on one masque, freezing his aspect to that of his choosing.

Kaze has developed a writable template, which allows mimes like Tristan to copy other humans on the spot, and not just wear fictional masques. With this weapon he is able to infiltrate Flagge by assuming the identity of one of their datameisters, Lani Rouge. While Tristan is successful in assuming the datameister’s identity, it is at this moment that all begins to unravel. The datameister escapes her kidnappers, Flagge forces converge on Tristan, and a strange, enigmatic mime liberator called Okasan gets involved in Tristan’s mission.

But when the whole scheme appears to be an elaborate plot by Flagge, things get even worse. Tristan becomes the bearer of a savage genetic virus aimed at mimes like himself, turning the society in vast turmoil, and handing the future apparently over into the hands of Flagge glom.

Wilson and Costello manage to pull off a tense, intelligent novel. It’s a slick work, marred somewhat by fighting an uphill battle to present the characters as likeable or sympathetic. In this regard I found only Lani Rouge, the Flagge datameister, as a living, breathing character, Tristan’s obvious ethics in letting her live notwithstanding. Perhaps it is because Tristan occupies no set identity, but can change bodies almost at will, that he struggles as a sympathetic character.

The rest of the book’s ensemble cast act mainly as part of the scenery. Even the villain fails to satisfy. The book does raise the issue of mimes and their rights, but the few characters who argue for mime selfhood do so haltingly. There is one important exception, though I won’t spoil the surprise here. Mimes are the results of DNA manipulation, and considered corporate property from start to end. If and when human cloning becomes a reality, we may well face a similar dilemma. When a fullscale mime rebellion does break out, it does so in a curious, disorganized affair. Most of society seems indifferent.

Masque is an entertaining but slightly loose novel. It’s almost like a product of its own, fragmented world. Still, Wilson and Costello do shine at times. Masque may have had a frustrating moment or two, but the prose is polished, the world well-realized despite its chaotic appearance, and the mystery of Okasan intriguing. With a stronger cast, where we care for more than a supporting member, and perhaps a stronger sense of direction, this would have been not just a good book, but a superb novel.

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