Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Mask of Chaos

John Jakes Mask of Chaos (1970)
This is another of those Ace Doubles, and hence a title which has found its way to my bookshelf mainly by virtue of being stuck to the back of Barrington Bayley's The Star Virus. Typically I assumed John Jakes would turn out to be another forgotten pulp-by-association science fiction author, maybe even one in the vein of Robert Moore Williams if I was lucky. However, a quick pog at Wikipedia reveals this to be an obscure formative work by some guy who went on to shift novels by the truckload, mostly historical jobs set around the time of the American civil war and of the kind which tend to get adapted as television miniseries. North and South was one of his, if you've heard of that. I hadn't, but my wife watched it when she was a teenager. Patrick Swayze was in it and I understand there may have been some shagging and people saying that they do declare.

Mask of Chaos gets off to a start at least as promising as its wonderful cover, fast-paced and yet written with enough flair to suggest Jakes was at least trying, and with a pleasant sense of van Vogt-style Dadaism at work. There's an inventive if slightly peculiar use of language, such as space off as an expletive; but for all its screwy promise, the narrative quickly settles to a certain level of cheese which isn't exactly bad, but tends to limit one's expectations as to how good the rest of the thing is likely to be, or at least it limited my expectations:

'Poetess,' she corrected. 'That's not my real line. That's only what I write on customs forms. My real occupation is woman.'

'Yeah, I can certainly see that.'

The heavy attempt didn't go over. 'You think I'm playing word games. Wipe it. I'm not. There's little enough love out in the stars the way it is. If anybody should know that, from what Fochet explained about you, it should be you. I write poetry as a hobby. Otherwise I'm a full-time, professional woman. I've been a mother, a wife, a mistress, a sweetheart. Sometimes paid, sometimes not, depending on my need, the man's need, and the atmosphere of the situation. Do you realise, Mike, how many women on the inhabited planets work at all kinds of professions except the one profession for which they were specifically engineered? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the women everywhere are like that. Women, and everything but. But I'm a professional. Needless to say, it's not a recognised occupation. The authorities on most planets disapprove of seeing it on forms. I've learned to write poetess pretty fast.'

'I'll bet you're good at it.'

'At being a woman?'


She smiled, really smiled, then. Dazzling.

'I am. Be good and you might find out.'

Phwoar! Eh? Eh? They love it!

Mask of Chaos maroons our boy, Mike - a cyborg whose name is an inexplicable contraction of Micropig - on a world where everyone wears a mask. He hooks up with Ab, poetess and professional woman who provides the brains to his brawn, and then the two of them just sort of hang around in the vicinity of the story for the next hundred or so pages. The masks are worn because everyone is horribly disfigured, although we never discover why so it's probably some heavy-handed allegory. Mike and Ab find themselves in opposition to this masked society for no adequately explained reason given that the society in question doesn't seem particularly oppressive or dystopian. They spend most of the novel embroiled in a game - a deadly game in which the prize is etc. etc., which seems to be one of those deals such as we saw in Rollerball or any number of crappy future sport strips in 2000AD comic. Of course, it could have gone either way given that a story is as much how it is written as that which it is written about, but the problem here is that we don't actually find out what the objective of this game might be, how our couple are expected to win it, or what is at stake. There's some mumbled explanation about a game without rules, suggesting Jakes scrabbling at whatever van Vogt was trying to do in The World of Null-A, but it feels like an excuse, particularly as the same absence of either dynamic or purpose infects the story as a whole.

Mask of Chaos isn't bad, but it's hard to say what it actually is, which is a pity for something which starts off so well and with such original promise.


  1. It's a good cover though, isn't it? And how come you've put Germaine Greer as a tag to this? Is that you being witty again?

    1. Yes - just in case all the "women's lib" bits turn out to have been her work.