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Shariann Lewitt: Interface Masque

cover of Interface Masque, pixellated blue bird wingI'm going to admit this upfront: this is a rant disguised as a book review. By this I mean that this is me getting my music-student rage on. Among general reader rage, too. I fully admit to getting frustrated at around the first 1/3rd of the book because of logic, world-building, and characterization inconsistencies on top of bad, bad treatment of music, but sticking it out purely for the catharsis of writing a review. I finally finished it today. While it took me about a month-and-a-half to read the book (where normally a book this size is 2 hours, max) partly because of real life, it wasalso because I could not get through five or ten pages without being brought up short by some inconsistency or problem.

So. Wanna hear about Interface Masque?

The paragraphs under the first cut do not contain spoilers. The rage review contains spoilers. If I were you, though, I wouldn't read the book. Not worth it. In fact, I have so many issues with this book that I'm not even addressing the RANDOM ALIENS IN THE NET bits, because I have piled quite enough objections in this review, but please be assured that they are ??? and are like a red herring that doesn't actually help with anything. They're just there and never resolved properly.

Interface Masque, Shariann Lewitt. 350 pages. Science fiction - cyberpunk?


Interface Masque was published in 1997, so definitely Lewitt can't be held for any of the computer network bits. I found those held up just fine, especially as she didn't go much into them.

This is a book where several characters in separate places are introduced, and then are gradually pulled together. The story itself takes place in a Baroque Venice of an unspecified time in the future. The first character is Cecilie, an apprentice at Sept-Fortune, a network security/data systems organization, part of a larger network of other Sept Houses. These organizations are absolutely top-notch and are contracted by enormous businesses like the Bank of North America to manage and create spaces in the net like kiosks, which are how consumers interact with the net - a sort of virtual reality. Then there's David Gavrilli, a runaway boy from the supremely rich-and-powerful Gavrilli family, making their money off imports. Lina is a singer in Pietà; because of music's ability to influence minds (i.e. make them more compliant), choirs are very high status and are also hired out at huge costs for board meetings or other similar events to make sure things go smoothly.

Cecilie finds out that to pass her test and become a journeyman in Sept-Fortune, she has to break into one of their clients' security systems - if she does it successfully, she gives Sept-Fortune blackmail material, if she does it unsuccessfully she'll be prosecuted unmercifully, and if she doesn't do it at all she loses her place; she decides that too much of herself hinges upon Sept to go the third option. David, the aforementioned whiny rich kid, falls into the company of Arturo, a man who plays jazz and is working to further jazz. Jazz is neither accepted nor outright banned, but it's harder to get a hold of - jazz concerts have to pay higher fees, etc. David's a gifted musician who turns to jazz. Lina just wants to sing, and is a talented soprano in the best choir in Venice. And intermixed with Real Life (capitalized in the book always) is the net - a place you enter through a dreambox, where the reality can be constructed. This is what the Sept Houses have made - a whole world that is based off the real one, with a Mall (where most consumers go), as well as deeper levels which only the Septs know about or can access: what Cecilie calls the infosea. This is the most basic level, where all the information is like actual packets in a sea and Cecilie swims amongst wrecks and coral reefs. The net - and it seems to be a future version of the internet - was apparently unregulated until the Septs took hold of it. During the novel a meeting of the Sept Houses are convened, and that's when all the action really starts.

Let's start with the music. The world is positioned about a hundred years or more in the future, but apparently jazz is still a great, subversive thing, so much that the law in Venice regards jazz as a grey area. It's actually described as subversive and sexy in those words. Indeed, conventional music is used - that is to say, choirs that perform Haydn and Mozart - are hired by the bigshot corporations and the city of Venice to sing, because they know that music has psychological effects. The Sept houses do when they arrange their reconciling meeting.

You would think that by this point we could abandon the dichotomy between 'classical' and non-'classical' music, by not positioning them as disruptive vs soothing, or rebellious and conforming, or whatever. From the names she used, I would say this is Renaissance-Baroque-Classical (no mention of Romantic era is ever made, but Stravinsky gets namechecked at one point as "not belonging to this group".) This is one thing that the time lapse between publication and reading that I cannot write off. The actual science fiction and programming part is fine, because they stand up relatively well, but the music part - that's the dichotomy you went for?

Moreover, Lewitt kept harping on it - the orthodox choirs sing Palestrina, Mozart, Bach, Haydn (these men are all listed in the actual text.) They sing for events and are contracted to do so, because the music orders the minds of the people who hear it - i.e. makes them more productive and orderly, which is a slippery slope that David and other jazz musicians say makes people into sheep. Contrasted to this is jazz - that is so strong that Cecilie (the character positioned as an orthodox Sept sister) gets up and dances, that is so revolutionary and so new and so convention-breaking that it's not legitimate and is performed in secret, hidden concerts only. This drove me crazy while I was reading, because for one, this is such an old, old conflict. I know Interface Masque was published in 1997, but come on, jazz isn't new by 1997! There is an age called the jazz age in the 1920s. Dead horse, dead horse! That, and the fact that the author kept describing non-jazz music as orderly makes me want to throw Mozart's famous Symphony 40 (agitated) and Haydn's Surprise (intentional sudden obtrusive shock chord) and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony 2nd Movement (yearning to the point that the bar lines aren't really there anymore) at her head. These are not obscure pieces, they're practically the most famous works of those composers, and where are they 'orderly'? Going to inspire conformity, as the jazz musicians say will happen? The way that the jazz musicians are positioned is one where they're afraid their music is going to be stomped out. But they're not. What's to stop them from playing? If they were angry that they weren't being acknowledged or asked to play, I'd understand, but as it is, they are deliberately sequestering themselves, not trying to gain recognition or roles in the music stage. They're hiding as far as they can.

It's like there was no Romanticism, no bizarre 20th century music that wasn't jazz and did inspire a lot of booing and hissing when it first came out. It's a surface skim, like Lewitt decided to take several complex genres of music and use the stereotypes to make part of the conflict. One of the major themes in Interface Masque is authority and rules and superiority: Sept sisters vs everyone else; Sept Houses vs everyone else; David's privileged upbringing, famous family and attendant responsibilities vs him running away; entrenched CONVENTIONAL music vs REVOLUTIONARY JAZZ. All of it is tied up in network security and what that means for someone who, not being Sept, d does not have access to the many levels they've built for themselves. But the music aspect doesn't work, because she's setting up two-dimensional constructs of what the genres are and then pushing them into conflict with each other. For example, because of plot-events, David can't practice jazz on the piano and he describes the desire to improvise rising like lust because of this suppression. But he plays piano...and Bach, who is on this list of orderly composers, has things like cadenzas and whole chunks of the bass line which are totally up for the pianist to improvise. There are massive gaps in dynamic markings and such in earlier works - like Bach and Palestrina - which means that the performer is at liberty to perform it as they like. The cadenzas, as far as Bach is concerned, are for showing off your virtuosity.

All that above, at least, can be dismissed if you accept it as Lewitt gives it to you - that JAZZ is revolutionary, CONVENTIONAL is the old way and makes people conform. OK. Maybe Mozart tapped into something (instead of composing music) and now you can brainwash people with his music. Fine. That's putting music into an alternate-universe. But there are internal consistency problems with characterization and music, too. Lina, the head-in-the-clouds-singer, is being talked at by Sean. Sean says that the Pietà has been performing more and more restricted music. Lina says she's been so wrapped up in music she didn't even notice...which makes no sense, because if all you think about is music, then surely you notice when chunks of music aren't appearing? That suddenly, all your repertoire is Bach?! (I have a love-hate relationship with Bach.) Do you not notice that you're repeating stuff or that you used to have variety and now you don't? I mean, there are actually distinctions between different composers, it's not like they're mishmashes of each other. And then not a few paragraphs later, Lina thinks to herself that she's one of the more 'aware' singers, that she knows that life is hard outside the privileged singer's spot she occupies. Um, so she thinks she's aware and she is apparently aware of things outside the cocoon of Pietà, but she misses the fact that her repertoire is being limited? When she says out loud that she's been wrapped up in music? This sort of character inconsistency made me doubtful of any character's reliability. Not to knock unreliable narrators, but this is like immersion fantasy (for all that it's SF): I as a reader must find out information from the character, because they're natives of this world. If I can't trust what they say and how they perceive things, how can I know the world of Interface Masque?

Lina takes Cecilie to the Pietà's data center thing; it's not connected to the main net, so she has to go through Lina and physically access the machine. Apparently Pietà's library is organized "like a symphony" (Lina's words). Cecilie recoils from it because, well, that's confusing! Then she apparently sees the beauty in it. This left me squinting and going: but what does it mean to be structured like a symphony, anyway? Sonata form? Like exposition, development, recapitulation? Why would you use this?! Not that various music forms aren't nice, but they're not designed for information storage and retrieval, and there are systems designed for that. Suppose you want to record when transactions happen, like when a singer joins your choir: that's a plausible, common bit of information the Pietà might want. Does this go into the first movement, the second movement, the third, or the fourth? Or into the coda? Or the bridge in your exposition? I'm all for systems that are new, but this is extremely poorly thought out. There's a reason there's library school.

And then to get the information, Lina sings a couple notes and the file opens. Cecilie is amazed and marvels at the security, since most Sept sisters don't get musical training. But only a few pages ago, Cecilie (while talking about her upbringing via reverie i.e. infodump-musings) says Sept-Fortune had trained "her to it...she could play the piano and the flute and had been taught to sing" (page 218). Plus, just because you don't have perfect pitch doesn't mean you couldn't crack it (and does that mean that everyone accessing the data have perfect pitch?) - I mean, bring something stupidly low tech like a pitch pipe or a tuning fork and you could crack the thing. It's also extremely easy to hear - at least when you type a password, it's difficult from someone across the room to find out what it is.

The problems with the music are just symptoms of the worldbuilding's shallowness. The idea of organizing around a symphony is neat, until you realize a) this makes no sense when you have to record dates and events, and not develop musical motifs and b) when you realize Pietà is a choir. Choirs do not generally sing symphonies, not as their centerpiece. When Cecilia first gets her assignment, I couldn't for the love of anything see why she was so fussed. Objectively, I knew she'd just been asked to do some unethical thing to pass and become an apprentice, but the actual description was taken as lot of working-up and when we finally found out what what was asked to do, I thought it was pretty paltry. The strength of the Sept sisters is not displayed, so all we have is Cecilia's word, and considering how she portrays herself - too good for everyone else, a bit melodramatic - it's hard to take her at face value. The book opens with Cecilie agonizing about the decision, before Sept-Fortune's power is ever demonstrated. Actually, it never is overtly demonstrated - only Cecilie talks about it, and Lewitt seriously and irrevocably undercuts this at the end of the book. Moreover, despite pages and pages of Cecilia harping on about Sept security - their whole business! - and her cleverness in breaching it, apparently the libraries that the Sept sisters studied from are totally unguarded. They are so pathetically unguarded that David - no training, no connections, just some eyes and a dreambox - walked right in. And he walks in not once, not twice, but many, many times, enough to learn how to breach the security and get to the infosea and take Cecilia by surprise. Cecilie is the top of her class, able to slip into the security that her Sept had created.

But Sept-Fortune are set up as the superior security/data company! They are supposed to be the best at managing information, at packaging it (in the virtual world), are seen as prestigious and important because of their skill, and become the reason Cecilie is willing to compromise her ethics. How could they be so careless about a matter that is so central to their existence? How could they not notice? You don't leave information that cracks your security systems out in the open like that!

A little later Cecilie is on the run. She doesn't dare send email in case it can be traced. But then, when she reaches the safety of a convent, she says that sending the mail under the convent's header will be safer since no one's looking for her with that header. Then two pages later Cecilie says that learning to forge headers was something she'd learned "by the time she was twelve".

I guess what bothered me was that there were some interesting ideas there, but they were all slapped together without thinking through any implications. The JAZZ vs PALESTRINAMOZARTBACHHAYDN probably caught my attention because of who I am. But other inconsistencies kept breaking my suspension of disbelief, and those are't specialist knowledge. They are basic worldbuilding mistakes: characters will say one thing, and then a few pages has the exact same character will, through an info-dump, say something totally contradictory. In the last chapters or so, when the action finally heats up, Lewitt undercuts the power of the Septs completely. David realizes that his family is actually very powerful, and can protect them all against Sept-Sorian. The police don't arrest him even when the Sept-Sorian brother is glowering literally over their shoulders, because they have no information. That...the whole conflict kind of falls down. What Cecilie sees (the Sept houses are being pushed together to dominate the whole net under Sept-Sorian, and this is terrible and bad for freedom) is negated by David at the end, in a complete and total reversal plus bonus deus ex machina, because suddenly David's family comes into play and can save them. Moreover, the way that character meet each other are extremely contrived: Cecilie is distraught, she hears someone singing from the window, she follows the sound, she sees Lina (total stranger) in the window, Lina somehow invites her in, and bam! Now Cecilie has access to the Pietà's information. Loose ends weren't tied up, though that might be for a sequel, but seriously: Cecilie is on the run, but once she's safe doesn't stop to wonder if her parents are okay? Ever? She wonders if they might be dead when she's frantically thinking of places to run, but after that apparently she never thinks of them again, even when she has received messages from Sept-Fortune and is in a safe place. Sept-Sorian enters as the antagonist with little-to-no buildup whatsoever. Just all around, not well-developed. There were lots of good ideas and some nice writing (aside from the infodumps and such, the prose was actually very good and described the area thoroughly but not intrusively.) But never again.


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/118188.html.

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