Reviewed by: Pete Barber
Approximate word count: 70,000-75,000 words
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Kerry Nietz is a refugee of the software industry. He spent more than a decade of his life flipping bits, first as one of the principal developers of the database product FoxPro for the now mythical Fox Software, and then as one of Bill Gates's minions at Microsoft. He is a husband, a father, a technophile and a movie buff. He has one non-fiction book, a memoir entitled FoxTales: Behind the Scenes at Fox Software. His first novel, A Star Curiously Singing, was published in October of 2009.
In a future world where disaster (unspecified but not important to the plot) has left cities cut off from each other and resources scarce, overpopulation is the most pressing social problem. The solution: each citizen maintains a personal vote count. Anti-social behavior will result in other citizens ‘voting’ negative points. When a citizen’s votes reach a critical level, a ‘collector’ is dispatched, and he or she removes the offending citizen and delivers them to a re-processing plant where they are destroyed—population problem solved J
A good sci-fi story needs a solid premise and I loved this concept of voting. The main character, Radial Crane, by day is a short-order cook. As we move through Radial’s work-a-day life, the effects of the voting system on people’s behavior was palpable. Everyone lived in fear of being negatively voted if they offended others or broke societal rules. Voting was anonymous, done at home on vid-screens. Anyone could decide to vote you although those closest to you carried the most weight.
Citizens with low vote counts are tempted to canvass positive votes from others even through canvassing is outlawed and can result in negative votes. No one is immune, even babies and children can be ‘voted’. The world governed by the vote was an uneasy place to live and the author had me feeling anxious for all those citizens I met.
By night, Radial is a collector. He wears a specially constructed suit, undetectable by CCTVs, impenetrable, and loaded with cool weaponry. His face is obscured by a mask (hence the title) which is hooked to the master computer, Quantum, and provides him positional data and bio-feedback on the incons (inconvenients) he is targeted to collect.
The dichotomy between Radial Crane the cook and his alter ego when he pulls on the mask is extraordinarily well handled. I moved with him as he controlled tiny flying monitors to provide visual data on his targets. The soft female voice of Quantum in his ears gave a sureness to his collection tasks and it seemed natural that Radial would be detached and efficient as he went about his business. Directed to the targets by Quantum, the Mask uses hi-tech gadgets to trap and then immobilizes his targets with ‘trankers’ which fly out from pods in his suit’s arms and stun the victim on impact. Once incapacitated, the collector lifts the limp incon over his shoulder and removes him or her to a waiting white van, which whisks them off to the processing facility. Other citizens stand by and turn away, fearful that they might become the next victim. Yes, I found myself thinking, that’s exactly how people would behave—herd mentality.
When Radial’s friend (someone he would never ‘vote’ and who would never ‘vote’ him) fails to show for work, it forces Radial to become emotionally attached to a victim. Later that evening, dispatched by Quantum to collect a ten-year-old girl who has been ‘voted’ by her mother, Radial reaches breaking point and his questioning of the values of the voting system and the true motives behind Quantum leads him to break from his role as a collector.
The remainder of the story follows Radial and the young girl, who he rescues. As he learns more about the society he is helping to maintain, what is being done at the processing plants, and the real purpose and nature of Quantum, Radial questions the validity of the voting society and turns its own weapons against it.
This is a fast read. The world building is well executed and cleverly shown through the daily lives of Radial and people with whom he interacts, rather than laid out as a narrative. Radial is a fascinating character. He relies on the Mask as a crutch to absolve him from guilt, and at the same time, it acts as a metaphor for the distancing of citizens from the society they have come to accept.
Thinly veiled references to belief in God as a key factor missing in the ‘voted-society’ and a crazy techno-wizard we meet toward the end of the story seemed underdeveloped themes to me. But neither of these small niggles spoiled my overall enjoyment of the story—highly recommended.
Too few to affect the read.
Rating: ***** Five stars