Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast

Novelette by Eugie Foster
WINNER: 2009 Nebula Award
Originally Published in Interzone #220

Starts off as a bizarre fantasy setting that leaves you with a bit of confusion about how gender works in this society, then moves into a unique variation on dystopian SF before an absolutely perfect, shocking, ending. The setting in itself is enough to maintain interest and just exploring that and the implication of the masks would be plenty interesting. The expected musing on identity is present and better handled than typical of a story about masks, and most importantly, not the entire point of the story. And I just can't get over how much I love the ending.

Revealing much of anything would ruin things, but the story is about a society where citizens change masks each day, and with the masks change their entire personalities and lives. They live as the masks. There was some debate online over whether the characters were human or not. I take the minority position that they are in fact human. Given the level of engineering implied by the story (medical, neurological and technological), I have no trouble believing that the obvious changes from our current biology and psychology would be possible to engineer into the species and that the history we get in the story indicates a society that might do such a thing. By Occam's Razor and the lack of anything indicating otherwise I assume human, and I just like the implications of the story even better given that assumption.

I keep wanting to get away from talking about the narrators of podcast versions of stories, especially when dealing with things like the Nebulas where not all nominees were podcast and I'm comparing them. But Mr. Santoro did an amazing job with the narration in this, and properly I should be calling it voice acting. The story doesn't really need anything to be added to it by the reader, but Santoro does it anyway. He expresses anger, fear, lust, confusion and switches from one emotion to another as easily as changing a mask. Particularly notable: he makes great use of stutters in the speech of the main character. Hesitations and repeats covey much more than you'd think.

This story hit me hard even on the third consecutive re-read, and I've loaned the CD I burned of the podcast to several friends. I can't recommend it highly enough. 5 masks out of 5.

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