Monday, July 2, 2012

Book Review: 'Stolen Faces' by Michael Bishop

4 / 5 Stars

‘Stolen Faces’ was first published in 1977; this Dell paperback (207 pp) features a cover illustration by Steve Hickman, and was released in July 1978.

As the novel opens, Lucian Yeardance, a middle-aged starship navigator, has been demoted for insubordination. His new assignment is that of chief administrator at Sancorage, the headquarters for the leprosarium on the planet Tezcatl.

The leprosarium harbors fewer than a hundred people, all infected with ‘muphormosy’, a disease caused by a bacterium native to Tezcatl. This bacterium causes symptoms - loss of viable tissues and nerves in the extremities, and attendant mutilation and disfigurement – reminiscent of the Terran form of the disease.

Yeardance soon discovers that his charges are by no means the saintly sufferers Father Damian encountered at Molokai. The ‘muphormers’ of Sancorage are a squalid congregation of violent, unwashed, self-loathing individuals, who think nothing of elbowing aside their more feeble brethren during the scrabble for weekly food distributions.

Yeardance also learns that the bureaucracy in charge of the leprosarium would prefer that the muphormers as soon die in obscurity, as garner increased assistance. As far as his superiors are concerned, the less of a commotion Yeardance makes, the better.

Yeardance, moved by the plight of his wretched charges, seeks to improve their lot. But his efforts bring to light some disturbing truths about the muphormers, the nature of their disease, and the influence of Tezcatl society and its Aztec-inspired cultural mores.

‘Stolen Faces’, like many New Wave –era sf novels, is centered on the themes of anthropology and sociology, rather than the ‘hard’ sciences.

The book’s opening chapters require some patience on the part of the reader, as Bishop introduces many neologisms, as well as belaboring a juxtaposition of the linguistic stylings employed by the Aztec-inspired culture of Tezcatl, and the Slavic / Soviet culture of the Galaktik Komm federation.

Despite these obstacles the narrative starts off on a promising note, with shadings of a medical mystery.

However, the middle chapters tend to lose momentum, as author Bishop devotes much of his attention to the burgeoning psychological turmoil experienced by Lucian Yeardance, as this formerly self-centered starship navigator becomes a Reluctant Humanist.

The novel’s final pages do regain momentum, as the deep secret of the muphormers is dramatically brought to light, and the note of creepiness underlying the narrative comes to fruition.

‘Stolen Faces’ is one of the better examples of New Wave sf: an offbeat, imaginative novel that, while initially something of a chore to read, rewards the reader who perseveres.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this review. It not only inspired me to pick up Michael Bishop novels (for example, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees) but also a copy of this gem.

Stolen Faces was amazing.