A Maze of Death by Philip K Dick

(8.5/10) A short novel rich in the depth of examination of the human condition when under severe stress.

Philip K Dick may be known for inspiring “Blade Runner’ and ‘Total Recall’ but his corpus of science fiction work is vast and deserves its place in the pantheon of SF Masterworks. For those wishing to delve into Mr Dick’s neurotic psychoses of novels, ‘A Maze of Death’ is a fine place to start as, whilst it may be a short novel at around two hundred pages, it is rich in the depth of examination of the human condition when under severe stress.

The novel is like an onion; as you, the reader, delve in, you come to understand that this is no mere narration, but layer upon layer of reality; it is an uncomfortable itinerary into the blurring edges of chemically induced fantasy, of painful Bedlam reality, of base instincts made manifest. Ever since Shakespeare gave Caliban a hard shove onto the beach of our consciousness in ‘The Tempest’, authors have striven to recreate, to further expound upon the fine line between law and anarchy, between bestiality and civility, between understanding and instinct. Dick explores these themes again in his 1970s view of a human future that is both a dance of macabre marionettes and a despairing dive into paranoia. For all that, the end game remains always the same in these literary explorations - Truth.

It is always fascinating to read science fiction that pre-dates the Internet, to see if the author’s prescience matches the world we live in today, if it matches the science fiction we think might be more realistic in eons to come. This is particularly invested in the techno-speak of the author - a reader can date a novel with a fair degree of accuracy based on the terms alone. Whilst Dick escapes this by not relying too much on describing wonders he never knew, there are flashes of his foresight in use of ‘radio’, ‘rocket’, ‘cannon’, ‘electronics’; there are no concepts of a hive AI, of lasers, of software etc.; he clearly has a greater technical knowledge of medicine, particularly in psychology for it is that which forms the complete brain of his novels whilst the wonders of space are merely the arms and legs of his intended construct. For example, he wants to diagnose how his characters die: “Cause of death: vast inflammation of the bronchial passages, due to an unnatural amount of histamine on the blood… exact cause of death was suffocation as reaction to a heterogenetic allergen.”

Death is the great act of the novel for it to succeed in its dialectic mission. Like so many of Mr Dick’s novels the premise is complicatedly simple: place a group of people in situations that are controlled by others and discuss what happens. A little like the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. We are given an idea of what might happen in his unrealistic Table of Contents, though this isn’t apparent until the last page is finished and we’ve understood each layer.

The narration commences with two arrivals on Planet Belmak-O (ostensibly to colonise it): firstly of Ben Tallchief, then of Seth Morley and his wife, Mary. Both groups have applied to a realistic Deity – who actually answers prayers – and are on their schizophrenic way to the planet to meet up with others: Wade Frazer, Maggie Walsh, Betty Jo Berm, Ignatz Thugg, Glen Belsnor, Tony Dunkelwelt, Susie Smart, Dr Milton Babble (and others). Within 24 hours a group of fourteen people are dead, dying, running, or (at best) merely confused. What remains is an attempt to explain. This is a group of individuals who must fail to act as a collective, who demonstrate that civilisation is beyond them whilst struggling to rationalise what’s happening to them through dissecting both the artificial insects and the menacing, silent Building. Eventually, Dick allows one to break free, to come to an understanding of the artificiality of the world they are in, and then neatly closes the doors of his trap shut, ensnaring them in what is not a maze, but in reality a labyrinth. It is escapism prose, writing about the desperation of escaping boundaries where each turn is ultimately futile.

The humour in the novel is barbed, dark, and subtle. Dick has Maggie desperately internalise that: “wit did not mean humour. It meant… the capacity of man to possess absolute knowledge” only then to have his group become entirely witless so that is “better if all men, wherever they are, were to die without knowing who did it or why.”

Dick’s descriptive narrative is concise, clipped yet precisely directed with surgical skill, each foray designed to reinforce a philosophical or psychological conclusion: ““her eyes sightlessly fixed on the harsh midday sky. Water dribbled from her still, and her hair seemed to Maggie like some hive of black wasps which had fastened on an adversary… Attacked by death, she thought. The wasps of Death.”

At the end of it all, for the characters of this novel, there is nothing more to do than play on the board of Dick’s game, to realise that “the smell of death is everywhere… we are inundated with it.” Until, at last, we are given a sort of explanation then sent on our merry dance of death into the maze once more.

If you like this novel (and Mr Dick’s other works), then it is an inevitable step up to the next great science fiction novels of J. G. Ballard, starting with ‘The Drowned World’. Ballard and Dick are similar in theme, philosophy, sophistry, and understanding of the human psychosis. Ballard’s prose is more polished, more poetic - Dick’s is like a rough diamond. Whilst Ballard’s “High-Rise” stands above this as a more thorough examination of this subject matter, both are peerless in the genre.

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