With a fund of racial energy and a great deal of leisure time, the population occupies itself with intricacy. …[I]ntricate symbolism, as exemplified in the masks worn by everyone; the intricate half-musical language which admirably expresses subtle moods and emotions; and above all the fantastic intricacy of interpersonal relationships. Prestige, face, mana, repute, glory: the Sirenese word is strakh. Every man has his characteristic strakh….One of the most rewarding aspects of speculative fiction is being able to get lost in new and unique realities. Speculative fiction writers refer to the process of creating these realities as “world building.” Whether it be describing a world in which magic and mythical creatures are commonplace, exploring the planets and cultures of alien races or even just predicting what human culture will be like a hundred, a thousand, a millions years from now, world building is a process many writers relish.
-- from "The Moon Moth"
Jack Vance’s “The Moon Moth” describes a world, Sirene, that has been inhabited by humans but whose inhabitants have developed a complex culture based on increasing and preserving one’s social status, or strakh. This system includes the wearing of masks that indicate one's mood as well as one’s status, whether it be a high-status mask such as the Sea-Dragon Conqueror mask or the less prestigious (and therefore less likely to cause trouble) Moon Moth mask. Basically, you have to be able to back up whatever mask you're wearing and prove your strakh is high enough to justify a prestigious mask. Another part of this complex juggling of social status is the way in which the Sirenese speak to one another: in song, and accompanied by music from various instruments carefully chosen to acknowledge the singer’s relationship with whomever he is speaking.
We see the alien-ness of this culture through the eyes of Edwer Thissell, a consul from the Home Planets whose culture we are given to understand more closely reflects modern-day Western culture. Thissell is told to wear the Moon Moth mask; as an outsider his prestige is considered to be very low.
After careful world building, describing the planet, the culture, the various musical instruments used to accompany conversation, Vance transforms his story into a whodunnit-style murder mystery. Since faces are never seen and everyone is identified by the various masks they choose to wear Thissell must use his recently-acquired knowledge about those masks and what they mean to their wearers to identify the killer.
I don’t know if Vance had any deeper meaning in mind when he developed his idea of the masks. On Sirene one wakes up, puts on a mask that reflects how he feels that day and goes out displaying that persona. The parallel to human psychology should be apparent; we often put on different faces depending on the situations we find ourselves in. One thing I have found in my own writing is that I will often recognize a theme or a “message” after I have finished writing a story. If I think that message serves the story well I will then go back and highlight it during editing.
The ending of “The Moon Moth” has a bit of a twist, which I won’t reveal in case you haven’t read the story. However, the inadequacy of this system of identifying people based not on who they really are but rather on how they are presenting themselves on a given day, based on the masks they’re wearing, becomes apparent. Is Vance sending us another message here? Should we not be so quick to judge people based on their outward appearance? Or, as in the case of “The Moon Moth,” can judging based on appearance sometimes be the correct response, whether or not we know about or intend the consequences of that judgment?
“The Moon Moth” Copyright 1961 by Galaxy Publishing Corporation.