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I'm really quite astounded that no one ever made a film or TV adaptation of Robert Silverberg's 1968 sci-fi classic (or at least, one of the sci-fi classics the prolific author released that year), but with computer games getting more advanced all the time, I fear it's too late for that idea to seem anything but redundant. Silverberg's tragic, sympathetic and heroic tale of principles and stubbornness set in a weird alien maze can be seen as one of the final publications of his 'earlier' period before his writing apparently improved to the standard of raking in an obscene amount of Hugo and Nebula awards in the following decade, but its futuristic revision of Sophocles' already outlandish Greek tragedy Philoctotes works incredibly well, far better than some of the more desperate cyber-Greek productions the twentieth century offered: I can't help but think chiefly of the cartoon series 'Ulysses 31.' If this novel was ever in danger of becoming a lost classic, it's only for being buried so deep within such an extensive bibliography - you know, just like a series of incredible product reviews written daily can be overlooked for spewing forth from the same multi-talented member (I thank you).
The background is rather a sad one; just as Philoctetes was exiled from Greece for having a smelly foot, famed Earth ambassador Dick Muller is haunted by a terrible psychic sickness that leads all within close proximity to experience sudden, unbearable, distressing emotions, and caused no objections when he packed his woman-cubes and departed his homeland forever in favour of the isolation of planet Lemnos. The ancient world is one of many known to mankind in its lonely expansion throughout the Milky Way that displays obvious archaeological signs of a native alien race long since extinct, specifically the enormous and seemingly impenetrable labyrinth they left behind; a puzzle that Muller no doubt appears to have solved, beginning the novel nine years into his self-imposed exile, having settled into a comfortable routine of hunting local dumb beasts and exploring the functions of his environment. This routine is rather suddenly and rudely interrupted when an Earth space craft appears in the skies overhead and lands in the general vicinity, outside the active defence perimeter of the vast maze of course (things aren't going to be that easy), and Dick must choose whether to exact revenge by using his traps to impede their progress, or leave the future of his exile in the hands of fate, in the unlikely event that anyone makes it through.
There's a nice trisected narrative to the book that shifts between Muller's perspective from inside his ancient fortress to the increasingly opposing views of aged officer Charles Boardman and his young subordinate Ned Rawlins on the other side of the divide. I don't know whether this is another narrative parallel to Sophocles' tale, but it's effective in really fleshing out both sides of the argument and explaining the background to this situation and to the futuristic setting in general without such insights feeling forced. There's even enough moral ambiguity and indecisiveness to prevent this from being a simplistic us v. them tale that expects the reader to identify with Dick's side against the advancing threat, as the truth about his situation is explained in depth and he considers whether continued exile in a dead city of booby traps is really what he wants from life. Similarly, Boardman isn't really the villain of the piece, despite seeking to control events with cold, unscrupulous precision for the sake of humanity's future and even lying or withholding information when necessary (like Cancer Man from 'The X-Files,' but not as cool), but it's Muller's tragic situation and young Rawlins' triumph of personal morality that endears them the most. I quite liked Muller, who I couldn't help but visualise looking like Richard O'Brien standing cool and confident in the Aztec Zone of 'The Crystal Maze,' as his time as a hermit has allowed him a clearer insight on the arrogance of his youth, proclaiming to be the next Columbus and elevating himself to a God, only to realise that due to his curse of expressing unclouded feelings, he is now more human than the race he left behind for good. Unfortunately, this is exactly why they need him back.
This novel stems from the most classic and speculative age of science fiction, and doesn't disappoint with its outlandish alien creatures. Muller's famous diplomatic encounter with the tall creatures of Beta Hydri IV was deemed unsuccessful due to a complete lack of communication opening between the two races, but on his return the emissary found himself substantially changed. Muller's resonance of this 'frequency' of negativity is intelligently deemed to be the only possible means with which to make contact with a new and even more exotic race of space whales slowly conquering the galaxy, whose absorption of the entire spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet finds little time for primitive verbal communication. Even the architecture of Lemnos and the maze itself are explicitly designed to be unrecognisably alien, from the architecture's complete lack of symmetry to the combination of traditional physical traps and more inventive psychic distractions to impede the invader's progress. At less than two hundred pages, this book necessarily leaves the majority of this mysterious universe satisfyingly unexplained, most obviously the question of how Muller - angry, careless and near-suicidal - ever managed to successfully navigate his way to the centre when all other have died in the attempt.
The tense and lengthy penetration of the maze from the outside with a series of expendable probes is the sequence that would most obviously lend itself to film, although the abstract nature of some of the traps would probably only have ended up looking disappointing. It feels as if Silverberg is foreshadowing video games that wouldn't be released for twenty years in this memorable section, particularly when human cannon fodder is sent in to establish whether the routes determined by the probes' trail-and-error progress are safe for people. Needless to say, these guys might as well be wearing red shirts ('Star Trek' in-joke there, this review is getting far too nerdy). Amidst all this mystery and drama, Silverberg finds a little time to squeeze in some space opera romance in Muller's memories of his old flames, unfortunately mainly serving to highlight the complete absence of women in this male-dominated universe as anything other than fetishised sex objects (personified literally with the 'woman cubes' that seem to be some form of futuristic sex doll), and there's even minimal use of comedy with the description of bizarre practices of human colonists on outlying worlds, particularly the Fat Cult of Loki. This novel doesn't encompass all, but it makes an admirable effort.
'The Man in the Maze' is essentially one of a seemingly infinite number of mid-twentieth century science fiction novels and as such is easy to take or leave - even wading exclusively through Robert Silverberg's works from the period would be a monumental task - but it impresses more than most for its strong human focus rather than a dependence on showing off innovative ideas for technology that wind up sounding daft and outdated when read several decades down the line. Its basis in timeless Ancient Greek tragedy helps quite a bit, even if this might be considered cheating, and the characters are all life-like, if a bit distinctly 1960s in some of their attitudes. The maze concept also provides a wealth of potential metaphors that more literary-minded readers can apply to the inner turmoil of the characters or the universe in general if they like, as long as they remember that it's actually about a maze. With false turns and dead-ends and stuff. I wouldn't necessarily read another of Silverberg's novels straight away, but as he's published about a thousand, it stands to reason that there's something in there that will grab my attention.