Lisa Goldstein’s 1987 A Mask for the General is a stand-alone near-future SF novel.
By 2012 America’s banks were computerized and networked. One ambitious thief’s malicious software could and as it happens, did, bring the United States’ entire cybernetic and financial edifice down overnight. In the days after the Collapse, General Otis Gleason had no choice but to take control, first of America’s nuclear weapons and then of the nation as a whole. Or at least that’s what he claimed.
Nine years after the Collapse, the American economy is a pale shadow of what it once was. Gleason is convinced that the problem cannot be his obsessive micromanagement; the problem must be the American people. Each day brings new regulations aimed at guiding easily misled Americans back towards wholesome conformity. Despite laws and harsh punishments, America is still plagued by non-conformists, particularly in the Bay Area town of Berkeley.
Seventeen-year-old runaway Mary is determined to be one of those non-conformists.
Mary is particularly enamored with Berkeley’s Tribes, animal-mask-wearing eccentrics who eschew modern technology and modern society. Mary is late to the party. Having attracted the General’s ire, the Tribe’s main club has been shut down for curfew violations. But Mary does manage to contact the Tribes … at which point Mary discovers that there is more to joining the Tribes than donning a randomly selected animal mask.
Berkeley isn’t a huge community. Mary almost immediately befriends mask-maker Layla. Endearingly eccentric Layla sees Mary as an ideal apprentice. Mary isn’t certain that mask-making is her calling, but she cannot resist the invitation to join Layla’s circle.
Not all Americans are happy with living under a military dictatorship. A few are displeased enough to try to restore democracy. Thus far, while the General’s security forces have not succeeded in crushing dissent, conventional efforts to overthrow the General have failed. It’s a stalemate, which counts as a victory for him.
Layla has the answer. All she need do is determine Gleason’s personal animal, forge a mask in the appropriate shape, and deliver it to Gleason. The spiritual transformation that will no doubt follow will open Gleason’s eyes to the error of his ways. A restored democracy will inevitably follow.
There is only one small flaw with Layla’s plan. Layla is quite mad. The State knows how to deal with mad women: arrest and detention in a rehabilitation centre. And if a naïve girl like Mary is too close to Layla when the forces of conformity descend, why, she will be dragged off to rehabilitation as well.
In my mind, A Mask for the General is inextricably connected in my mind to Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After. There are so many parallels. Both books were published by Bantam Spectra within a few years of each other, both are set in the San Francisco Bay Area, both feature an America much reduced, and both pit artists against a military dictator determined to bring society to heel1. If there’s some underlying, real world reason for this parallelism, I don’t know what it might be.
As fictional authoritarian regimes go, Gleason’s US is more tedious than horrific. People are arrested … but piecemeal, not en masse. Gleason tries to enforce conformity but often fails. Resistance members die in violent clashes with the police but not often2.
Yet no glorious uprising appears in imminent.
In large part this may be due to the fact that his lackeys are time-servers rather than true believers. They put in the absolute minimum effort required to keep their jobs; they strive to avoid personal blame for any setback. There’s a late Soviet air to conditions. Shortages and corruption. Nothing works well but no one can publicly say so.
Revolution would seem possible … but it won’t happen because of Layla. She isn’t a wise fool who can lead the masses to a victory only she can envision. She’s a badly traumatized person with significant mental health issues. She might be a social catalyst (or not — the book ends on an ambiguous note) but she is also someone who spends the book belatedly realizing she’s made a terrible mistake.
Readers looking for thrilling two-fisted action, enthralling ninety-page monologues on political theory, and rousing ensemble refrains of “One Day More”should look elsewhere. However, readers interested in a skillfully written examination of a declining America from the perspective of society’s outcasts should seek this out. Alas, A Mask for the General appears to be out of print.
1: I dimly recall having once known that there was something more than parallelism connecting these two books. What that something was … that I cannot remember.
2: The General’s prisons seem to be better places than real American prisons were in the actual 2021. Rather than extracting slave labour from the prisoners, the rehabilitation centres really do seem to be trying their incompetent and unmotivated best to turn their charges into standardized Americans. They’re no good at it, but competence is rare in the General’s America.