Science-fiction has been slow to achieve the kind of scholarly respect afforded to many literary genres. The reasons for this are probably tied in with the genre's vast library of luridly-titled pulp paperbacks, apparently shallow tales of rockets and robots on Planet Zog. Now that the tide has turned, however, and you can read science-fiction novels in a university's English department without tutors sneering at you, it is interesting to note that the acknowledged masters of the genre were about as pulpy as it got - from Isaac Asimov to, of course, Philip K Dick, Hollywood's favourite source for slightly trippy sci-fi blockbuster action.
You sort of know what to expect from a Philip K Dick novel. Middle-aged white collar protagonists, barely legal and often mentally disturbed heroines with small firm breasts, a riot of drug imagery and the odd bit which makes absolutely no sense at all (which tends to be why the scholars love Dick now). In some ways, though, Maze of Death is a bit of an exception.
Maze of Death
Fourteen strangers transfer to an experimental colony world, Delmak-0. Quickly, they are cut off from the authorities and isolated in the Universe. Then, people begin to die, one by one. The strangers divide in two groups, one going out into the wilderness to track down the mysterious Building, the other staying at the makeshift settlement. Each of the strangers has a neurosis or addiction of some sort, from the alcoholic Ben Tallchief to the obese Seth Morley. And each has a small tattoo on their instep. Who are the forces picking off these people? What is Persus-9? Why is prayer so extraordinarily effective? What is going on?
When Philip K Dick feels that a book of his is so obscure that he needs to add an explanatory introduction, you know you're in trouble. But the premise of Maze of Death is so bold for a science-fiction novel that you need it upfront, or you're never going to follow the text. In this book, God exists. The whole future society that Dick presents to the reader is predicated on the notion that God exists, and grants prayers which are transmitted to Him by radio.
The introduction goes on to state that the afterlife experiences of one of the characters uses imagery he experienced on an acid trip. This is more the sort of thing you tend to expect from Dick.
Dick's religion is introduced from the outset, and is a faintly spaced-up version of Christianity, with elements of Judaism and Islam bolted on. The Holy Trinity is replaced by the Walker on Earth, the Intercessor and, well, God. These divinities are ranged against the activities of the Form Destroyer.
Although it sounds like pulp science-fiction, Dick uses this rational religion to ask pertinent questions about faith and prayer. It is illegal to be an atheist in this future society (oh yes, the future is always a police state of some kind in a Dick novel), but many choose not to gain advancement through prayer even though it demonstrably works - they consider it immoral to rely on others to solve your problems, even if the others in question are deities. Early on, Ben Tallchief is called 'the Praying Mantis', and this quip colours our perception of religion throughout the rest of the book, in a way which the author couldn't get away with if he was bashing a 'real life' faith.
Philip K Dick was a modern philosopher, you see, who liked to pose questions about the nature of humanity, the mind and perception in his work. Maze of Death is atypical in that the philosophy is much more central to the plot than, for example Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (where the wilderness episodes and Voigt-Kampff tests can't disguise the fact that it's mostly a novel about shooting and screwing replicants) but some of the points that it raises are also a lot easier to grasp than in some of Dick's more opaque work.
In his introduction, Dick draws the reader's attention to tricks he has played with viewpoint. Each scene is written very much from the point of view of a specific character, and once you realise this, you start to notice that they are each perceiving the hell-world of Delmak-0 very differently.
This comes to a head when the exploring party finally reaches the Building, and each individual reads a different word above the doors. Some perceive the Building as a winery or a library, and others see it as a brothel of some sort.
All is not as it seems on Delmak-0, but then it would hardly be a Philip K Dick novel if it was. The fourteen colonists acknowledge their mental problems, and begin to speculate that they may be inmates of an insane asylum, or some kind of social experiment.
The answer, when it comes, seems pretty standard for anyone who's ever watched a bit of Red Dwarf (this is a bit unfair as the book pre-dates Red Dwarf by a good twenty years, and almost certainly inspired several of the episodes, but never mind). Or is it? Another favourite theme of Philip K Dick was this idea of 'levels of reality', as also seen in Ubik and in Time Out of Joint, and there is similar ambiguity here. The eventual fate of Seth Morley is bizarre in the extreme, until you remember the concentric circles in the acid trip afterlife sequence.
This is to speculate, and to speculate much further could spoil your enjoyment of a great book. Suffice it to say that although the apparent surprise ending has become pretty unremarkable to a modern reader, even a cop-out, you're still in the hands of a master storyteller and there's more going on than meets the eye.
The characters are all well-drawn, even the ones who are first to be murdered, from the alcoholic Tallchief (who spends half a chapter talking to Gandalf) to the prophet Tony Dunkelwelt. Even the reluctant leader Glen Belsnor, and sex-mad Susie Smart are more than cut-outs. But it's Seth Morley who steals the show as a fully-fledged Philip K Dick hero, even as his actions take the novel into true pulp territory, stealing hovercars and shooting down guards.
The theme of mental illness gradually fades into the background, but once again Dick treats its victims with dignity. We spend time in the heads of each character, seeing events unfold through their perceptions, and this makes us sympathise with them. Even the sex addict isn't written for laughs.
Maze of Death is a rewarding little book, one of Philip K Dick's lesser-known works, but constantly readable nonetheless. The religious elements are truly thought-provoking, regardless of your own beliefs, and the gradual disintegration of Delmak-0's society makes for some exciting moments, and the odd bit of pathos as well. Recommended unreservedly, and available from second-hand bookshops for as little as £3, so there's no excuse!
This is a review of the 2005 Orion Publishing Group Edition.
'The Maze Of Death' is another result of my recent trip down to the local library. I've never read any Philip K Dick before and a combination of curiosity and good reports from friends made me take a punt on this author.
The story principally concerns two characters, Ben Tallchief and Seth Morley, two unrelated characters who are about to be transferred from their respective space stations to a new life on Delmak-O, an installation that no-one really knows very much about. In this world the Deity is split into three components: The Mentufacturer, The Intercessor and The Walker-On Earth, evil is represented by The Form Destroyer. The roles of these elements isn't all that important, except that this is the basis of religion in the universe these characters inhabit and is important to mention. When people pray to these Deities, if their prayers are well constructed, they may be granted their request. The book begins with Ben Tallchief's prayer for a transfer being granted and Seth Morley being visited by The Walker-On Earth, who informs him that the spaceship he has chosen to fly to Delmak-O in is not fit for purpose. Thereby saving Seth and his wife Mary's life by divine intervention.
The theme of Religion is very important to the novel as Dick draws parallels with Christianity and how people may place false hope in something that 'could' exist but could equally be an invention. The plot is not at all complex (though I may have made it sound so!), it basically quickly becomes a sort of 'Agatha Christie/The Thing' type scenario where the 14 colonists of Delmak-O begin to die one by one and its up to the others to figure out who or what is killing them before its too late. They must also discover WHY they are on Delmak-O and what their purpose is there.
I shan't ruin the ending for anyone, though I will say an episode of Red Dwarf owes rather a huge debt to this story!. Many of the ideas Dick talks about seem very advanced for the time (1970) that it was published. My knowledge of Science-Fiction novels is primitive to say the least, so I don't know who may have been writing about this kind of stuff before, but certainly modern film and TV programme makers have drawn much inspiration from Dick, often trying to film his 'very hard to film' stories.
I'm sure there's probably a good film to be made from 'A Maze Of Death' but it would take some wit and subtlety to do it and bring out the nuances in Dick's prose. There is some quite dry humour in places ( for example the chapter titles at the beginning of the book bare no relation to events which take part therein!), and Dick does a good job of drawing 14 quite distinctive and different characters for the reader to engage with. Where Science Fiction novels may be known more for their ideas than characterisation, Dick does well with the characters, especially Seth Morley as the hero of the piece.
I enjoyed the experience of reading this book immensely and am really looking forward to reading more Philip K Dick, the SF Masterworks series obviously rate him highly as an author, reprinting 14 of his books in their collection!.
After reading the battered old library copy, I ordered myself a nice new copy from Amazon UK, as I would definitely read this one again at some point. Retail price is £6.99, but Amazon UK came in at under £5 including postage. There's always the charity shops as well of course which could deliver you a real bargain if you're prepared to hunt!. Highly recommended.