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A Maze of Death
Philip K. Dick
Gollancz, 506 pages

A Maze of Death
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928. While attending UC at Berkeley, he dropped out rather than take ROTC training. He went on to write some 36 novels and 5 short story collections. He won the 1962 Hugo for The Man in the High Castle and the 1974 John W. Campbell Award for Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He died of heart failure caused by a stroke in 1982.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Simulacra
SF Site Review: Lies, Inc.
SF Site Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
SF Site Review: Time Out Of Joint
SF Site Review: The Game-Players of Titan
SF Site Review: Minority Report
SF Site Review: Now Wait For Last Year
SF Site Review: Dr. Bloodmoney
SF Site Review: Beyond Lies the Wub and The Father-Thing
SF Site Review: Second Variety
SF Site Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Martian Time-Slip and A Scanner Darkly
SF Site Reading List: Philip K. Dick

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

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Philip K. Dick is a writer whose body of work moves through distinct phases. A Maze Of Death is a book that sits on the cusp of a transition into his final productive period. You could call this, variously, his Gnostic, religious or metaphysical period and in this respect the novel wears its heart on its sleeve. It opens with a foreword that states:

It stems from an attempt by William Sarill and myself to develop an abstract, logical system of religious thought, based on the arbitrary postulate that God exists.
The most important fact here is that the basis of this system is real so praying and the like can hardly be considered manifestations of religious inclinations at all. The Bible for this not-quite-religion is an imaginary work called Specktowsky's How I Rose From The Dead In My Spare Time And So Can You. It sounds suspiciously like the sort of book Dick himself would write.

In this universe of empirical theology, a small group of colonists wait on an alien planet. They do not know why. They all believe that as soon as the final colonist joins them they will at last discover why they have been sent there. This is not to be. Just like the Telephone Hygiene Officers in Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide, the reader is left with a nagging feeling they have simply been selected for this mission because no-one else wants them.

The last two colonists to arrive -- Talltree and Morley -- are our initial viewpoint characters. I say initial viewpoints because after less than a quarter of the book Talltree is killed. This is gives you a good idea of the sort of book Dick is writing: his characters are not his real concern. Talltree is the first to die but by no means the last. In some ways A Maze Of Death resembles that horror template: put half a dozen people in a house and chop them up. Here though the agent of their despatch is a shadowy metaphysical force rather than an axe murderer.

In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction John Clute describes this book as "a bleak, poisoned exercise in theology, which has been described as his single finest work." This was my favourite Dick novel as a teen but re-reading it now is disappointing. The theology is little more than a mish-mash of stoner philosophy; a handful of centuries-old arguments regurgitated without sophistication onto the page. It is the sort of thing you could imagine the characters from A Scanner Darkly coming up with on Bob Arctor's couch. This perhaps explains its adolescent appeal.

This is not the only problem the modern reader faces. Whilst Dick's writing evolved in some respects -- his prose became more expressive, he was able to introduce humour -- other aspects stayed rooted in the 50s pulp magazines in which he started his career. It is ironic that he dedicates the book to his daughters because the female characters here are decidedly regressive. This, along with his nudge-nudge wink-wink approach to sex, is probably the biggest problem with his body of work as a whole. Although a sharp and sympathetic observer of women, he remained locked in the mindset of the early Twentieth Century and gender roles in his novels reflect this. Physical beauty is the most important attribute a women can possess.

The novel also ends with a gimmicky twist. As a general rule this is a bad idea and it initially seems that this is the case here too. However it is the bleakness that Clute alludes to that saves it and imparts a final sting in its tail:

"No hope. Nothing! Until we grow old like Roberta Rockingham and die."
"Mrs. Rockingham is luck," Mary said bitterly.
"Very lucky," Russell said, and his face because swollen with impotence and bleak anger. And suffering.
It is a messy work, torn between the concerns of his early and late career, but it is undoubtedly an affecting piece of work. As with so much of Dick's work, it is impossible not to see the author in his fiction. However it was only when he was more consciously able to express this that he was able to produce truly successful novels such as A Scanner Darkly and VALIS.

Copyright © 2006 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.


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