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A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

Maze of DeathBeware SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm rereading more than I expected to on this Dick binge. Like the other two rereads, however, it has been so long since I first read A Maze of Death that all I remembered about it was that it was vaguely dissatisfying. I felt that way again this time ... until I got to the end, where Dick pulls one of his patented reality shifts. This time it's almost literally "it was all a dream," which may have felt like a cheat to me when I was younger, but Dick actually rings some changes on the formula that make it more interesting than it might have been.

One reason I've reread the books I have -- Ubik, Galactic-Pot Healer, and A Maze of Death -- is that they were written around the same time, along with the one book I read for the first time, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? You certainly notice some common themes when you read theses books in close proximity. There's an exploration of group consciousness, for example, in Ubik and Galactic Pot-Healer that's taken up in A Maze of Death as well. Thus one change run on the "it was all a dream" formula is that it's a group dream. The group that initially appears to be a random aggregation of colonists on the planet Delmak-O turn out to actually be shipmates on an interstellar craft that has become disabled, dooming them all to a certain death. Their group dream is an attempt to distract themselves from their existential plight as well as to work out psychological tensions within the group as they wait to die. Those tensions, however, are infecting the group dream, turning an exercise in group building (the colonizing of Delmak-O) into a story about a bunch of convicted murderers who have been subjected to an experimental attempt to rehabilitate them in a fantasy about working together to colonize an alien planet.

One of the things Dick is playing with in these books is the advantages and disadvantages of social groups. Another thing that A Maze of Death shares with Ubik is a sense that separation from the group means death. This is depicted in the most primal way, without any theoretical apparatus to explain it. There's a sense that other people, as hateful as they may be (and almost everyone in A Maze of Death is hateful, even murderously so), are a source of life, as necessary to the survival of the individual as rain and sun is to a plant. The flipside of this sense of nourishment from society is the sense that we all die alone. Death is a private, singular affair that can't be shared with the group.

A Maze of Death shares with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Galactic Pot-Healer the invention of new religious mythologies and beliefs. (Arguably Ubik does too, although it's less direct.) In the shared dream in A Maze of Death, the deities of the characters' religion are considered real and observable, not a matter of faith. Religion is therefore very matter-of-fact and barely subject to question, unlike Mercerism in Androids, which is treated skeptically by Deckard and by the androids themselves. Androids is probably the least metaphysical of the four books, although even in A Maze of Death the apparently empirical religion ends up being part of a dream, with the author of the scriptures that everybody quotes turning out to be the dead captain of the doomed spaceship. Dick seems obsessed already with theological questions, yet typically he weaves between prophetic certainty and skeptical ambivalence with disturbing ease. However, one of the fascinating moves in the final chapter is when Seth Morley meets one of the deities from the shared dream after he's awakened from it. He physically vanishes from the ship, leaving no trace, which implies that he's been taken away by the deity, but this is left ambiguous. Has the religion bled from the dream world into reality?

So why did I feel vaguely dissatisfied with the book until the end One was the welter of character viewpoints, which feels very messy and which Dick tries to defend in his Author's Foreword by claiming that while the viewpoint wanders between characters, it's mostly from Seth Morley's POV. I'm not sure that latter is actually true, but it's also true that when the nature of the shared dream is revealed, the wandering viewpoint starts to make more sense. This is a group consciousness, without a central viewpoint. The other thing that nagged at me was the simple-mindedness, if not stupidity, of some of the stfnal material, such as the little oneway spaceships that the people use to get to Delmak-O, which make absolutely no sense. Once again, once you discover that it's all a dream, the illogicality of these things makes more sense. In fact, the book feels more like a satire of SF -- or perhaps a commentary on the dreamlike, absurd qualities of the stfnal imagination.

I was a little surprised to see that the Library of America had included this book in one of their three collections of Dick's most important novels. However, the way that this one expands in the mind is starting to turn me around a bit. Perhaps I should actually read Now Wait for Last Year before I decide conclusively that they were crazy to include it!

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
mrhedgehog
Apr. 13th, 2014 07:40 pm (UTC)
"Now Wait for Last Year" also have a very powerful ending
randy_byers
Apr. 13th, 2014 08:52 pm (UTC)
I actually don't think I know anything about it.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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