The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg
In one of Robert Silverberg’s novels from 1967, Thorns, the future sci-fi Grand Master presented his readers with one of his most unfortunate characters, Minner Burris. An intrepid space explorer, Burris had been captured by the residents of the planet Manipool, surgically altered and then released. Upon his return to Earth, Burris was grotesque to behold, resulting in one very withdrawn, depressed, reclusive and psychologically warped individual indeed. And a year later, in the author’s even more masterful The Man in the Maze, we encounter still another space explorer who had been surgically altered by aliens, but this time, the alterations are mental, rather than physical, although no less devastating to the subject’s sense of self-worth. The Man in the Maze was one of three sci-fi novels that Silverberg released in 1968, along with (the excellent) The Masks of Time and World’s Fair 1992 … AND eight sci-fi short stories AND eight full-length books of nonfiction. Silverberg’s writing had entered a whole new phase as regards craft and literacy in 1967, and The Man in the Maze shows the author in the full flush of his newfound abilities.
In The Man in the Maze, the reader encounters ex-interplanetary diplomat and space explorer Dick Muller, whose career had been going along swimmingly until, at around age 50, he’d been called upon to make contact with the first intelligent civilization that humankind had thus far encountered: the residents of Beta Hydri IV. After many months of seeming indifference to Muller’s presence amongst them, the Hydrans had seized the Earthman and, for reasons never learned by either Muller or the reader, operated on his brain. On his return to Earth, Muller discovered that his fellow humans could no longer abide his physical presence. Somehow, all the nasty sludge deep down in his brain was now being telepathically communicated to others, like an infinitely less harmful variant of the Id Monster in the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, or the psychic equivalent of the aroma that hits a NYC subway rider when he/she enters a car that contains an especially foul-smelling homeless person!
Unable to turn off his repellent mental aura, Muller had immured himself at the center of the ancient maze on the dead planet Lemnos; a murderous, million-year-old labyrinth with limitless means of destroying intruders. After nine years, however, a ship lands on Lemnos, containing Charles Boardman (the man, now 80, who had sent Muller on his disastrous mission to the Hydrans), Ned Rawlins (a 23-year-old space cadet, whose father had been a friend of Muller’s) and a ship’s complement. Their mission: to somehow penetrate to the heart of the killer maze and persuade Muller to come out and undertake an even more dangerous mission. It seems that an extragalactic race has recently entered our galaxy and begun to enslave Earth colonies at the outer fringes, and that only a man with Muller’s peculiar condition might be able to communicate with them. But will the understandably bitter and neurotic recluse be at all interested in helping the humans who had earlier rejected him?
Of all the many novels that I have read by Silverberg, I believe that The Man in the Maze might work best as a $200 million motion picture. In the book’s tremendously exciting first half, robot probes and then a trained group of soldiers meet horrific ends as they endeavor to map a path through the concentric zones of the maze. In the book’s next section, Rawlins encounters Muller and uses lies and psychological manipulation to wheedle the bitter hermit back out. Silverberg presents us with frighteningly strange animal life on Lemnos and, via flashback, a glimpse of those Hydrans, a race of aliens that is truly alien. Ditto for those extra-galactics, when we finally encounter them near the novel’s end; that elusive “sense of wonder” that is the hallmark of all great sci-fi is to be had in great abundance here. Silverberg’s writing itself is of a very high order, too. He gives us marvelous dialogue, and his descriptions of some of the worlds that Muller had visited are both highly imaginative (such as the Earth colony on planet Loki, where the residents deliberately seek to attain weights of 400 pounds and more by means of “glucostatic regulation”) and oftentimes almost poetical (“He had slept beside a multicolored brook under a sky blazing with a trio of suns, and he had walked the crystal bridges of Procyon XIV.”). And then there are the passages that are almost psychedelic in nature (such as when Rawlins traverses the maze’s distortion field), a warm-up of sorts for the lysergic passages in the author’s 1971 novel Son of Man. The author also gets to voice his feelings on the difficult lot of the telepath in this novel, a theme that would be explored in infinitely greater depth in 1972’s brilliant Dying Inside. It would have been wonderful had Silverberg come out with a sequel to this marvelous novel — the finale is certainly an open-ended one, with several important questions unanswered and the fate of the galaxy still very much up in the air (or should that be “up in the vacuum”?) — but what we have here is still quite satisfying enough.
The Man in the Maze, naturally enough, is not a perfect novel, and a close reading will reveal a few slight missteps on the author’s part. For example, Silverberg tells us that Lemnos has a 20-month year in one chapter and a 30-month year in another. Similarly, he tells us that Lemnos has a 30-hour day in one chapter and a 20-hour day 50 pages later. And he is guilty of some slight instances of ungrammatical writing, extremely untypical for him, such as when he writes “…mild-mannered ungulates which drifted blithely through the maze…,” instead of “…that drifted.” But these are trivial matters that Silverberg’s editor should have caught 47 years ago, when the book was first published, and flubs that only the most nitpicking wackadoodle (yeah, that’s me!) would notice. The bottom line is that The Man in the Maze is literate, exciting, suspenseful, adult sci-fi with an interesting trio of lead characters and a fascinating story line. One of my bibles, The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, gives it a mere seven-word description (“a dramatization of the problems of alienation”), but this reader found it to be so very much more. Now, Mr. Cameron/Nolan/Abrams/Spielberg/Blomkamp, howzabout raising the requisite dinero to bring THIS awesome science fiction vision to the big screen?
This would make a wonderful popcorn movie!
And it’s one of the best SF adaptation of ancient myth I know of. He not only transposed the settings in a very interesting way but also conveyed the rage, the sense of injustice which pervaded Philoctetes. It’s rarely done so well.
In 1991, I was engaged in L.A. by a Swiss production company (which had optioned the book’s film rights) to write a full-length screenplay based on the novel–which I did. It took about nine months. In retrospect, it’s dated, overwritten and a little ponderous, but I’m rather proud of it. Unfortunately, when it came time for the Swiss to renew their option so they could start making submissions, they were outbid by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, who hired their own writers, and who never produced an acceptable script after years of trying. My agent offered to show my version to Icon, but fearful of liabilities, they declined. So “The Man in the Maze” went into turnaround at Icon. Whether they purchased the film rights to the novel, I don’t know.
A fascinating tale, Galen. Thanks for sharing it. So sorry that all your hard work has thus far gone for naught on this particular project. Personally, I find it amazing that NONE of Robert Silverberg’s books and short stories has been filmed thus far….