In Philip K. Dick’s 25th science fiction novel, Ubik, a group of a dozen people is trapped in an increasingly bizarre world, in which objects revert to their previous forms, reality itself is suspect, and the 12 bewildered people slowly crumble to dust, murderously done in, Ten Little Indians style, by an unknown assailant. In his next published novel, A Maze of Death, Dick upped the ante a bit. Here, we find a group of 14 people, seemingly marooned on a very strange planet, while a murderous force picks them off one by one, driving them to madness and homicide. But while the two novels have those elements in common, they are otherwise as different as can be, with different themes and tones. A Maze of Death has been called one of Dick’s “darkest” books, whereas Ubik, despite the outré happenings, maintains a comparatively humorous tone throughout.
Released as a Doubleday hardcover in 1970, with a selling price of $4.95 (!), A Maze of Death was the author’s attempt to construct “an abstract, logical system of religious thought.” God exists, in this novel, and can be petitioned (despite Jim Morrison’s cry to the contrary) by mechanical means: by attaching conduits to the permanent electrodes in one’s pineal gland. Indeed, of the 14 hapless colonists who find themselves on the mysterious world of Delmak-O (in what we must infer is several years after 2105), one arrived due to a prayer that he had sent out, and another couple, Seth and Mary Morley, only survive the trip through space with the help of the Christ-like figure known as The Walker on Earth.
Delmak-O is one of the more macabre of Dick’s worlds. Its only life-forms seem to be mechanical insects (with miniature cameras built in) and the “tenches”: mounds of protoplasmic gelatin capable of reproducing any object placed before them. And then there is the mysterious structure known as The Building, the signs on which read differently for anyone who looks at them. I would be hard put to describe the eerie mood that Dick manages to engender in this work, or the strangeness of the many deaths that ensue. Ultimately, it all comes together in another one of the author’s mind-bending finales, which goes far in explaining away much of the mishegas that had come before, even as it reduces the bulk of the novel to a barrelful of several dozen red herrings. Still, what a memorable experience, and what food for thought the author leaves us with!
A Maze of Death is not a perfect book, and shows signs of being hastily written. The author can be accused of using the word “said” too often (as in this small section: “Give me a few minutes,” Maggie Walsh said… “I’ll say it,” Belsnor said… Seth Morley said, “I’d like permission to go on an exploratory trip…” “Why?” Belsnor said), and makes the terrible mistake of giving Seth and another of the colonists, Bert Kosler, the same occupation at the novel’s end (I’m trying to be coy here and avoid spoilers).
Still, A Maze of Death is compulsively readable and endlessly fascinating, and is filled with interesting and well-drawn characters. The many death scenes are unfailingly shocking, and the afterlife experiences of Maggie Walsh — which Philip K. Dick tells us in his foreword were based “in exact detail” on one of his LSD trips — are both psychedelic and revealing. From what I have read online, the two elements of A Maze of Death that have most confused readers, stirring up debate and bull sessions without number, are the Walker’s appearance near the novel’s end (an actual manifestation, sez me) and the chapter headings (such as “The rabbit which Ben Tallchief won develops the mange”) that have absolutely nothing to do with the chapters themselves (the only Dick novel with such chapter headings, to my knowledge)! While I do have my theory as to this latter conundrum, I really cannot go into it without giving away the novel’s surprise twists, which is something that I would never dream of doing. Suffice it to say that A Maze of Death finds Dick near the top of his game, providing intelligent science fiction thrills as well as brow-furrowing speculation for the generations to come.