Masque, F. Paul Wilson and Matthew J. Costello

Warner Aspect, 1998, 342 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 0-446-51977-4

It’s funny how books can remind you of food.

I have absolutely no idea why this is so.

Maybe it’s a purely personal prejudice: after all, I can’t go a few days without some reading much as I can’t go more than a few hours without food.

Maybe it’s because you eventually learn that beyond “good” and “bad” books, there are books that are perfectly adequate without being any good and there are great books that somehow fail to satisfy you. Rather like food doesn’t necessarily divide itself between “poisonous” and “healthy”.

Masque, for instance, is the SF equivalent of a meat and potato meal with a small amount of soya sauce thrown in: completely ordinary, but with a few interesting bits.

Since van Vogt’s Slan (and probably even before then), science-fiction has always had a soft spot for ostracised minorities with special talents. In Masque, we have Mimes, a group of genetically-tailored humanoids that can change their shape according to specially programmed templates. In this story, all Mimes are owned by warring corporations (yes, it’s a wacky wonderful cyberpunk future all over again!) to be used as spies whose identities can be re-created at each mission.

(Scientific verisimilitude of humanoids able to change to another form in a matter of minutes is interestingly obscured by convincingly-sounding techno-babble, but the basic premise remains pretty unbelievable.)

Our hero is Tristan, a mime who is about to accomplish the final mission of his contract. It seems simple: infiltrate an enemy base and steal plans. Of course, obstacles will turn up. Whether it’s inconvenient scruples, mutants, underground sects, fighting pits or constancy duplicity, Tristan will soon discover he’s way over his head in tactical complexity.

Nobody will be shocked to learn that he meets a girl, kills bad guys and overthrows a regime or two before the end. No surprises here. Scant excitement too. Masque plays it very safe by using Standard Plot #32 and portraying the protagonist as a sweet, almost innocent hero-to-cheer-for. Why? Because he’s sweet, innocent and the protagonist.

Which is to say that there’s some character development, but not that much of it. No matter: even the freshest characters this side of Shakespeare couldn’t have saved this pretty generic SF thriller from bare adequacy.

Science-Fiction, like science itself, advances primarily through individual contributions to the whole discipline. Despite having done a competent job at cribbing together elements from umpteenth stories, Wilson and Costello’s advances to the genre are pretty equal to nil.

Still, Masque has a legitimate place in the SF ecology. By being an adequate thriller, it might be translated to the screen and become an unusually smart SF thriller. It might introduce readers to SF. It might be something to read while waiting for the next good SF novel. It might make money for Warner Aspect. It might entertain a few readers for a few hours.

Grossly overpriced as a hardcover (this is the prototypic paperback SF novel if I ever saw one!), Masque might still, given these caveats, be a good choice at your local library. But only if there’s nothing better available in the New Arrivals bookshelf.

Going back to the food analogy, Masque is average fast-food, competently put together by chefs who have the capacity to do much, much better. It will fill you up until the next meal, but will also quickly evaporate from your memory when said next meal will arrive.

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