Home > Book Reviews, Philip K. Dick > Book Review – A Maze of Death by Philip K Dick

Book Review – A Maze of Death by Philip K Dick

A Maze of Death is the kind of book that seems initially appealing but doesn’t stand up to subsequent readings. When I first read this in 2000, I was impressed and even exhilarated by the breckneck pace of the plot and the multitude of twists and turns along the way. I especially liked the ending. Now, ten years later, I still like the ending but I’m not a fan of what comes prior. It seems to me now that Maze‘s reality twists are less a genuine exploration of what constitutes reality, such as can be found in PKD’s best work, and more a frantic attempt to fill up the pages as quickly as possible.

Maze is set on the as-yet uncolonised world of Delmak-O, a harsh landscape that does not significantly differ from PKD’s depictions of Mars or any other non-Terran world. PKD was never much interested in really depicting what an alien world would actually be like, and so here he fills up the landscape with tiny electronic bugs (seen also in The Simulacra and possibly elsewhere), the printers (although they aren’t named as such here) and the tench (a jellylike oracle that answers questions submitted via scraps of paper). There’s also a river that appears and disappears at will, and a mysterious Building that seems to phase in and out of existence in order to conceal its true location. In short, this is the kind of material that Stanley Weinbaum introduced to the SF world in his seminal story “A Martian Odyssey” in 1934. By 1970, when Maze was published, this stuff had already been recycled by PKD and others a hundred times over.

If the setting is derivative, then the characters are no better. Fourteen colonists have been sent to Delmak-O for reasons unknown to them, and none of them know each other except for Seth and Mary Morley, husband and wife, who are emigrating from a kibbutz on the colony of Tekel Upharsin. Seth’s a marine biologist but there’s no water on Tekel. Not that there’s much more on Delmak-O, as we soon discover. I’m not going to list the other twelve characters and their occupations, but suffice to say that there is very little that distinguishes them from cardboard cutouts. There’s a character called Ignatz Thugg, for example, who is clearly a ‘bad’ man and likes to think about dogs and women having sex together, among other things. A handful of these characters have some interesting features. Betty Jo Berm springs to mind, and Glen Belsnor is reasonably well drawn, but most of the others are very two-dimensional. Dr Milton Babble, for instance, does not seem to differ in any meaningful regard from doctors in earlier PKD novels, such as the better-drawn Dr Glaub in Martian Time-Slip. And this is a problem in Maze, as we’re supposed to care for the fates of the colonists as they begin to be picked off one by one by some unknown force.

Onto the plot then. I guess you could say that the plot of Maze is the strong point here, but don’t try to make logical sense of what transpires. I don’t think it will help. Once all the colonists have arrived on Delmak-O, they hook into the ‘slave satellite’ to receive their instructions from General Treaton and Interplan West. The message is garbled, however, and the colonists are left to their own devices. Then they start to die. Seth Morley, who is basically our protagonist as the story moves into the middle third, goes on an expedition with six other colonists to locate the mysterious Building. When they arrive, we are treated to short sections narrated from each character’s point of view, each of them seeing the sign on the Building’s exterior differently. Thus one character reads the sign as WINERY, another as WITTERY, a third as STOPPERY, a fourth as WITCHERY, and so on. What PKD is trying to tell us here, as he’s told us many times before, is that knowledge is subjective and that we all inhabit our own idios kosmos (personal reality) which may or may not overlap with the koinos kosmos, or shared reality. But I can’t help but feel that he did this much more effectively (and less crudely) elsewhere, for instance in Martian Time-Slip where he repeats one section three or four times from the points of view of various characters.

In the second half of the book, Seth Morley manages to get himself injured at the hands of the thuggish Thugg, and thereafter we spend a bit of time with Morley as he tries to discover the reality of the situation. Some mysterious outsiders appear, who may or may not be trying to help Seth and the other colonists, and Seth ends up piloting a ‘squib’ to an abandoned city that may or may not be London, on Earth. Then it transpires that all of the colonists have a tattoo with the words ‘Persus 9’ on their persons (why wasn’t this mentioned earlier?) and the remaining colonists march off in the direction of the tench to discover the answer. The tench doesn’t like this question and thus explodes in a shower of circuitry, and then the whole world of Delmak-O comes apart. Finally, in a twist than impressed me immensely the first time around and still impresses me to a certain extent now, it turns out that Delmak-O has been a virtual reality. None of the ‘colonists’ are actually dead, but their real situation is no less grim: they are trapped in a crippled spaceship with no hope of rescue. The virtual reality simulations are simply a way of expunging their hostilities toward one another, and a means of wasting time. Seth falls into a deep depression and nearly kills them all by opening the vents into space, but then, in a final twist, the Intercessor appears and persuades Seth not to kill the others. It grants him his one wish: to become a desert plant asleep for a thousand years in the sun. Seth disappears and the others go back into Delmak-O simulation.

There’s a little more to Maze than this, but not much. One of the more interesting aspects is the invented religion based on The Book: A. J. Specktowsky’s How I Rose From the Dead in My Spare Time and So Can You. (PKD deserves credit for this hilarious title.) In this religion the Intercessor, Mentufacturer and Form Destroyer create, regulate and destroy the myriad things of the universe, and the Walker-on-Earth appears to mere mortals with items of advice. There’s a nice scene early on where the Walker appears before Seth and tells him not to go to Delmak-O aboard the ‘noser’ “The Morbid Chicken.” All of this is quite well done and gives Maze a deeper level of meaning it would otherwise lack, but it’s not ponderous.

On the other hand, there’s one (in my opinion) disgraceful characterisation that I can’t help but comment on: that of Susie Smart. Susie Smart is the ‘colony whore’ (by her own admission) who seems to have some fatally wrong with the part of her brain that is supposed to stop her from attempting to have sex with every man she meets. The other colonists call her ‘Susie Dumb.’ Seth has the hots for Susie (she’s got big boobs after all) and she attempts to seduce him, and would probably have succeeded if not for the intervention of Seth’s wife Mary, who catches the pair of them in the act. Seth insists that he was trying to get away from Susie, not have sex with her, and the matter is basically dropped thereafter, as there’s a convenient shifting of attention to more urgent life or death matters. Prior to this, one of the characters (I think it’s Belsnor) says that it’s a shame that Susie wasn’t killed. When Susie is later killed, everyone seems to be quite pleased, although there is a small section of narration in her defense. Ursula Le Guin complained in the late seventies about PKD’s inability or unwillingness to create positive female characters in his novels, an accusation that persuaded him to create the wonderful Angel Archer of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. The feminists, particularly those interested in speculative fiction (such as Joanna Russ) would have had a field day with Susie Smart, and with good reason.

Maze isn’t a bad book, and it does have some interesting and perhaps original ideas that would be picked up by later writers and filmmakers and deployed more effectively. But it’s nowhere near the top tier of PKD’s work, and I’d been surprised if it was truly in the top thirteen of PKD’s forty-plus titles as selected by Jonathan Lethem for the Library of America editions. Lethem isn’t the only one to have rated this highly: Gollancz in the UK has seen fit to publish it in the SF Masterworks series (as shown above – this is the edition I currently own). So maybe there’s more to Maze than I’ve been able to discern on this reading.

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  1. wordsofthevoid
    October 22, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    I absolutely adored this book. It’s an homage to “And then there were none” by Agatha Christie. The characters aren’t overly developed for a number of reasons; the POV character is Seth Morley and he isn’t overly concerned with the others (and for good reason, pointed out below). Secondly, they are meant to stand as symbols for various segments of society, the 14 on the planet are a bubble society and lastly, they all actually know each other already and aren’t overly interested in learning more. Notice how when they interact they never ask anything truly personal? It’s because they already know each other and they’re aware of this on a deep subconscious level.

    I don’t really agree that this novel doesn’t have any depth or complexity. The entire thing is a metaphor. What does it say that they are more comfortable in a hell they have created for themselves then in reality? What does that say about the human condition?

    As for Suzie Smart, I believe that her treatment and view from the other characters was a calculated decision on Dick’s part. She’s the only one of them compulsively driven to be close to others. Sex is one of the ultimate forms of intimacy, but intimacy is exactly what they are trying to escape by hallucinating. They innately hate her because she’s seeking what they are trying to avoid. It’s mentioned many times how the rest of the characters are self-centered and ego driven. It’s written that they live in their own private heads. Of course they hate Suzie, she’s threatening to enter their world.

    This book is enormously different from Dick’s body of work as a whole and I can understand why his fans wouldn’t like it. However, it’s a chilling piece of existential horror masquerading as a masterful murder mystery.

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