“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster

IZ220 coverA more polished offering, about masks and made of masks, all the way down. How much to unmask here? Let’s say that structure – numbered sections, from one point of view – masks the real story, and trappings – Queen and court, available trades – mask the real setting. Masks themselves define the narrator each day, job and personality and gender. Every aspect of identity. They’re elaborate things, painted dressed-up colours: sable or ebony black, saffron yellow, jasper red, sapphire blue. Fun! Except when your job is to be tortured to death, perhaps.

One by one the masks are stripped away. “Imprint” isn’t the first clue, but may be the moment the story fully reconfigures itself in the mind. It’s a criminal offence to be in a position to hear that meaning of that word, of course, an illicit thrill: learning who’s running this dollhouse and how is forbidden. Suffice to say that there isn’t necessarily salvation in taking off the mask, in the certainty of “I”. That would be too easy. I liked the story for that, and for toying with me. It’s also available online, here.

25 thoughts on ““Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster

  1. I read this a couple days ago. Eugie was kind enough to send it to me when I asked so that I could look at it with an eye toward Nebula nomination, but now I see I could have just looked it up online. Sorry, Eugie!

    I thought this piece was powerful and compelling with strong images that pulled me through the story. The anonymity of masks is an interesting theme and I felt she did something very compelling with it.

    I enjoyed the read and I can see why it was printed and reprinted. I’d have taken it for PodCastle if she and Jeremy hadn’t colluded against me by putting it in Escape Pod first. ;)

    I did have a few quibbles, mostly that I wanted the story to take itself a little further than it seemed inclined to — I might be willing to meet the piece halfway and agree that these insect-like creatures are mostly humanish, but too many of the details were standard fantasy for me. The queen’s honey and alternative scents set me up for some interesting worldbuilding that didn’t quite pay off — instead, I got serenades and lady’s maids… A hint more strangeness would have gone a long way, I think, for me at least.

    Also, the story started roughly for me. The sex-averse woman murderer fell out as too stereotypical and too one-note. I was thoroughly prepared to be annoyed with the story before she went away and then I wasn’t annoyed anymore. ;)

    I <3 the idea of serious book groupish discussion of short stories. Thanks for providing a forum, Niall.

  2. I liked the story. It works best if you don’t think too hard about the setting though. It’s a shame because a lot of internal coherence is sacrificed in the name of delaying the reader’s understanding of the…I guess I’ll stick to non-spoilers here…nature of the characters. At the end of the story previously accepted culture mores stop making sense. Marriage? Male/female stereotypes? Really? Like Niall I enjoyed the story’s reconfiguration, but it cost a lot believability.

  3. I’m going to dispense with being coy about what’s really going on in the story at this point, so if there’s anyone left who hasn’t read it and wants to, stop here.


    At the end of the story previously accepted culture mores stop making sense. Marriage? Male/female stereotypes? Really?

    Meaning: these things make no sense in the context of what is apparently in some sense a literal hive society? Hmm. I quite like the idea of all these contemporary-conventional behaviour patterns being grafted on to this underlying social structure to keep it viable. I think there’s a sense in which the society is kept from achieving any kind of “natural” order (whatever that would mean for this kind of human) in the same way that individuals within it are kept from achieving any kind of stable self-awareness. At the same time, I know what you mean; I don’t think the society feels quite tangible enough to be believed in for long after you stop reading, and there’s no particular reason why our conventional behaviour patterns should be the best ones for achieving stability. (Though it’s a fairly unhealthy kind of stability, you have to say.) The success of the story for me, as Rachel says, is that as you’re reading it pulls you through and convinces you — I really did enjoy the way new information was fed into the story, it was very well controlled.

    All of which said, I’m wondering if I missed a cue somewhere, since I didn’t read the characters as literally insectile. (Possibly because the first association for me was the human hives in Stephen Baxter’s Coalescent?)


    I <3 the idea of serious book groupish discussion of short stories. Thanks for providing a forum, Niall.

    You’re welcome. I’m just glad people are commenting. Makes it all much more fun, thanks. :-)

  4. First, I don’t think they were physically insectile either, what with the references to soft skin, white teeth, and thighs as being of sexual importance…does an ant have thighs?).

    Still, I think the story could have exploited the fact readers default characters to “human” absent any other information and thus avoided digging such a big hole as far as the cultural stuff. The fun of the story is re-examining what you’ve read previously as each bit of new information comes up, so when some things don’t make sense it weakens the experience. Why would a hive species instituting a new culture arrive at pair bonding? Why would they set up a society with rich and middle class, shop keepers and servants? There are answers to questions like this but not in the story.

    One side note, in light of our lengthy discussions about “Eros, Philia, Agape”, is that this is another character who wants to cast aside an imposed culture in favor of what is natural. This time, though, there is clearly a natural mode of existence to return to: the original hive society. I’m not sure that’s a satisfying result for someone used to a culture very much like ours. Fortunately for him, based on Pena’s example, going natural just turns you into a liberated nonconformist, rather than more conformist like I’d expect.

  5. does an ant have thighs?

    Part of me really wants to know the answer to this question, now.

    There are answers to questions like this but not in the story.

    Well, this is what I’m saying, I guess. I read it as patching — that humans are not well-adapted to life in a hive society, so they need a Matrix-like dream of some kind to keep them happy. So I’m not sure I’d agree that the original hive is a “natural” mode of existence for those who wake up to return to — and in fact I took the narrator’s actions at the end of the story as evidence for that disjunction, that he didn’t have the mental tools to deal with it. But maybe I’m reading more into the story than is there, on that point.

  6. ” I read it as patching — that humans are not well-adapted to life in a hive society, so they need a Matrix-like dream of some kind to keep them happy.”

    Really? I think it’s pretty clear that they’re *not* humans, at least not literal Earth-derived ones. They are the members of the hive who are consorts to the queen. (The consorts need a Matrix-like dream to keep them happy, but they’re not humans as far as I can tell.)

    Now, the hive appears to be made up of humanoid creatures. And that’s believable to a certain extent — there’s no reason I’m aware of that the social organization of hives should develop only when one has six legs and an exoskeleton.

    However, if all these creatures are consorts to the queen of a hive that features social roles like the hives we are familiar with — and that is the conceit as far as I can tell — then what exactly are we doing with both male and female consorts? All the consorts should be fertile males, if I remember my insect biology correctly. If what we’re seeing is that the consorts have been given masks to emulate the entire insect society, not just the consort niche, then we would see fertile males, but no fertile females, which may actually be what we are seeing (there’s no mention of children after all). But surely their conception of sex, in a hive composed of fertile and infertile males, and fertile and infertile females, separated into rigid caste roles, would be very different from male-female monogamous pair bonding.

    Perhaps Eugie’s point is that the rigid roles of insect castes are reminiscent of feudalism. (I can buy that as a point worth exploring in fiction, although anthropologically I don’t credit it much.) People are born into classes (job roles) they can’t leave. The queen is predestined (by her biology) as in all good feudal fictions.

    But ultimately… why? Even if we accept that aspect of the social structure, why would a hive-like society have lady’s maids and serenades as reference points? These are things tied to human social patterns, not to insect social patterns — but also, more importantly, they’re tied to human histories and I have trouble believing something so like our medieval history could by chance be conjured elsewhere. Even if we grant that a hive society is non-intuitively building its fantasy world on monogamous heterosexual pairings and a feudal social hierarchy, why would the material culture look so similar to ours? The choice seems unexamined, as if we’re just dealing with fantasy defaults.

    I think a quick note that the hive-like society had met humans and was building its fantasy world based on their wacky history — hey, say the hive, we figured, queens and castes, just like us! How could it go wrong? — would have helped me out as a reader. They could even have sent out the technology for humans to build. Or perhaps these hive like creatures ARE humans, having been genetically modified (or having evolved / or having bred with aliens / or any other conceit) to act hive like.

    Any of that would work for me. I just needed an explanation.

    When I’m not staring directly at that logic hole (or at least, it still seems to me like a logic hole; perhaps I’m just missing something), I don’t have a problem with the story. I just think it was an omission that weakens the piece which is a pity because it’s otherwise so strong. On the other hand, it’s strong enough to still be compelling and beautifully done even with that flaw.

    To some extent this is what Andy Duncan calls a refrigerator door question — or was for me — one of those questions that comes up after you’ve already enjoyed the movie, when you get home with your spouse and open the refrigerator door to get a drink and suddenly it occurs to you, “Hey… how did the hive get to be medieval?” But by that point, you’ve already enjoyed the movie. ;)

  7. Really? I think it’s pretty clear that they’re *not* humans, at least not literal Earth-derived ones.

    Can you remember what cues led you to that? I want to re-read the story now; I have to admit, after the big reveal I defaulted to assuming the story is sf, that what we’re seeing is some kind of far-future but human-derived society. It’s entirely possible I missed something, and if I am then your objections seem solid to me.

    (I find it interesting that if the text of the story doesn’t explicitly specify one way or the other then you have to consider it to specify far-future human by omission, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. If that’s the game, it shows really admirable faith in readers!)

  8. Niall: Can you remember what cues led you to that?

    They have very powerful scent responses, most notably an apparently uncontrollable mating urge. But even in day to day life they are very scent-oriented. “Not time to mate but will be soon” is a fairly fine-grain distinction.

    Also their bodies are neuter. Without a mask the narrator cannot identify Pena as male or female.

    Far future writers assure us anything is possible for posthumanity but I think without any evidence aliens is the simplest answer.

  9. Also their bodies are neuter. Without a mask the narrator cannot identify Pena as male or female.

    The second statement is true, but I’m not sure it necessarily implies the first. They could just be conditioned to take their gender cues entirely from masks. And as far as smells go — as I mentioned, the story put me in mind of Baxter’s Coalescent. I don’t believe the evolutionary path laid out there (in which a community of humans living in catacombs under Rome start to evolve in a hive-like direction in 2000 years) is actually possible, but I find it imaginatively compelling enough that the changes don’t seem so extreme as to be automatically alien, given a sufficient length of time or good biotechnology.

  10. I liked the story and I will keep an eye out for Foster in future but ye, there is definitely something of the refrigerator door to it.

    My starting assumption was that they were not human. We are told straight away it is a hive society which instantly suggests non-human (unless, perhaps, you are a Baxter fan) and we almost as quickly told their bodies appear non-human (highly developed scent receptors, “black veins”, lack of secondary sexual characteristics). However, as the story goes on they act in very human ways that are contrary to how you would expect hive creatures to live. So either they aren’t human (in which case why do they behave like them?) or they are human (in which case the journey from now to then is extreme enough to require some explication).

    As Rachel suggests, I think you only need a couple of sentences either way to square the circle here. Perhaps Foster enjoyed the ambiguity of not definitively settling it but in this case the ambiguity leads to two not entirely satisfying choices for the reader.

    Perhaps some of you could help me out with another question I had: how to there bodies work? If you stab them or skin them, they don’t die, only a blow to the head is fatal. Why? I thought at first maybe their bodies were actually part of the mask (which could explain some of the male/female stuff) but that doesn’t seem supported by the end of the text. Also, why does the Queen need them to be periodically skinned? It doesn’t seem to fit her basic requirement for her hive to be kept active. Does this explicitly parallel something in the insect world? It states that they make the yellow murder masks from the skin they flay but why? And if the masks determine mental state why is the narrator so meek at the beginning when they put on the murder mask?

    I was also slightly unconvinced by the ending. Obviously it is nice that the narrator wasn’t magically able to overthrow the tyranny of the queen but is simple psychopathy a response?

  11. If you stab them or skin them, they don’t die, only a blow to the head is fatal. Why?

    I assumed the masks provided extreme regenerative nanotech (or equivalent).

    The purpose of the skinning, I’m not sure. Maybe just to keep everyone from getting too happy.

    I was thrown by the ending at first, but I like it on reflection. To me it’s a rejection not just of an easy revolution, but of the preceding idea, that you could be woken up from a living dream and understand the situation you find yourself it. I think the narrator just completely lacks the psychological tools necessary to deal with his true situation, and in the absence of Pena has no way of gaining those tools.

  12. Rachel: Any of that would work for me. I just needed an explanation.

    Athena: Why not ask the author to state her premises?

    Are we asking for the story to remove its mask? My frustrations with the story were quite similar, but I think the piece works to the extent that multiple explanations are almost valid; that collapsing the options would undermine it.

  13. I personally find backstories fascinating. They give details and dimensions that had to be pruned from the story proper for the sake of style and narrative flow.

    To have the author state her premises doesn’t mean that everything becomes obvious or collapses into a single explanation.

    Plenty of fun — and food for thought as well — in that.

  14. Postscript: Spinning theories about a story is like spinning theories in science without ever trying to distinguish between them with experiments. The discussion is a pleasure; so is (re)reading the story with the alternatives in mind. But in the end, the author did have something specifically in mind. And, to me at least, it’s important to know what it is.

  15. Enjoyed this. Like several others in the thread, I could have done with a line or two to explain why the Queen lighted upon this socially- and gender-stratified social model – it’s entirely plausible that she had encountered creatures with a similar social organisation to our own, just as we are aware of the principles of hives, but I need to go outside the story to reach that conclusion.

    I, too, read them as non-human hive creatures; they may be actually humanoid, as well, although given how seriously the masks distort their perceptions (such that they appear different from one day to the next) it’s hard to be sure. (That said, Pena’s comments that the narrator will learn to read facial expressions “instinctively” suggests more mobile faces than I associate with the average insect!)

    I’m also inclined to think that under their masks the Consorts are all male, whatever that means in this society; their role prior to taking on the masks is explicitly one of sexual reproduction with the Queen. The Queen develops the masks in order to give her Consorts something to do when her technology has developed to the point that she is “no longer chained by the dictates of perpetual reproduction”, and thus doesn’t summon them to mate anymore. (Presumably the gendarmes, her “soldiers”, are/were drones.) The masks give the Consorts new gender identities, and the narratives to go with them (pursuer and pursued, generally); the “Queen’s Honey” makes them respond to each other physically within the terms of these constructed narratives.

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