1/26/13

A Maze of Death by Philip K Dick (1970)

"A Maze of Death" is the Philip K Dick equivalent of a slasher movie. He puts a bunch of people into a remote setting, throws in some oddball religion, kills them off one by one, then reveals a surprise twist ending. In the story fourteen people travel by one-way rockets called nosers to the planet Delmak-O, ostensibly to colonize it, but as soon as they're assembled they start to die in unnatural ways. At first the characters suspect they are being attacked by something native to the planet, and they even find a miniature building that shoots at them with a laser cannon. But when they find one of their own killed with a rock, they begin to suspect that the killer is one of the colonists, and paranoia runs high. Before long half the colonists are dead and one of them, Seth Morley, has a potentially fatal wound. A mysterious rocket arrives and two interns fly him across the planet to a hospital, where he learns they have been on Earth the whole time, only something is still not right. The story ends with several reality-twists that are too good to reveal here.

Written just as "Ubik" was being published, this novel has a lot of the same themes and tropes, but the plot is less complex. Instead, Dick spends time painting the details of the world, adding a universal theology, providing a future history for Earth and the development of space exploration, and focusing on creating characters with more background than he normally provides in his works.

According to a note from the author in the beginning of the book, “the theology in this novel is not an analog of any known religion. It stems from an attempt made by William Sarill and myself to develop an abstract logical system of religious though, based on the arbitrary postulate that God exists.” The assumption is that God exists, in many forms, and responds to personal prayer if it’s transmitted to the correct satellite. Everyone has a copy of the modern bible, A.J. Specktowsky’s book “How I Rose From the Dead in My Spare Time and So Can You.” At one point Dick describes a character using the book:

Opening at random (a highly approved method) he read over a few familiar paragraphs of the great twenty-first century Communist theologian’s apologia pro vita sua.
“God is not supernatural. His existence was the first and most natural mode of being to form itself.”

The random aspect brings to mind the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. Not coincidentally, Dick also refers to the I Ching through a character called a Tench, an oracular alien that provides fortune-cookie messages to the colonists: “There are secret forces at work, leading together those who belong together. We must yield to this attraction, then we make no mistakes.” According to the author’s notes, the answers from the tench “were derived from the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes.”

In his theology Dick spells out the four forms of God. The Mentufacturer is responsible for bringing the universe into being and starting time in motion. Address a prayer to him if you want to roll back time and take a different path. Several of the characters interact with the Walker-on-Earth, the physical manifestation that travels the universe helping people, while they all ultimately encounter the Form Destroyer in the shape of death. His entropy is an opposing force to the Mentufacturer. And finally there’s the Intercessor, a Manifestation of the Deity that can stand in for us collectively, similar to Jesus Christ. In other novels Dick has discussed each of these themes, but this is the first time in his work that he attempts to bring them together in what he calls a logical system.

Have I mentioned that one common PKD theme is that reality is lying to you?

“A Maze of Death” has multiple levels of deception, but the one I like best is the self-deception as the characters try to read the words on a mysterious Building that stalks the colonists. They first encounter the building as a tiny model, but then it appears to them in the jungle of the planet.

“I can hear it,” Seth Morley said, and felt fear. Enormous, instinctive fear.
A hundred yards away a gray wall rose up into the smoky haze of the midday sky. Pounding, vibrating, the wall creaked as if alive...while, above it, spires squirted wastes in the form of dark clouds. FUrther wastes, from enormous pipes, gurgled into the river. Gurgled and gurgled and never ceased.
They had found the Building.

Some words are written over the doors to the building, and since this is PKD I imagine the words are similar to the “Arbeit macht frei” written over the entrances to the Nazi concentration in World War II. The problem for the colonists is that each perceives the words to mean what they most hope or fear. Simple Seth Morley reads the word as WINERY” hoping to buy a couple of bottles and to sample some cheese, while the fanatically religious Maggie Walsh sees WITTERY, but wit doesn’t mean humor...”If I go in there, she thought, I will learn all that man can know in this interstice of dimensions. I must go in.” The others see other words: the psychiatrist Wade Frazer reads it as STOPPERY, a Celtic word for a sanitarium, Mary Morely sees WITCHERY, and the brutish Ignatz Thugg interprets the word as HIPPERY HOPPERY, a place where they have people hop onto animals for “youknowhwat.”

This word as a thing to be perceived, or misperceived, recurs throughout Dick’s books. In “The Zap Gun,” after one of his trances Mr. Lars expects to bring back a weapon design to fend off the invaders. Instead he sees only this sentence:
"The (unreadable, a short word) in the maze."
The word consisted of three letters, the second of which -- he was positive, now, as he scrutinized it -- was a
He decides that the word is Rat. Or, is it Man? Does it really matter to the story?


In “The Game Players of Titan” while Pete Garden is under the influence of drugs and alcohol he discovers an important truth, which he writes on a matchbook. The next day he reads “WE ARE ENTIRELY SURROUNDED BY BUGS RUGS VUGS.”

The fading words are a metaphor both in the stories, and for PKD himself. Does the word change because the world changes? Or, by changing the words, does he alter the world? So many of his stories feel as if he’s making it up as he goes along, but he also seems to be referring to the magical notion that knowing the word will make it real. (Is there a Greek word for this?) According to Wikipedia, “In semiotics, a sign is something that can be interpreted as having a meaning, which is something other than itself, and which is therefore able to communicate information to the one interpreting or decoding the sign.” Is this Dick’s way of trying to find the signs that will help him decode reality? Because, as I mentioned, reality is lying to you.

This is exactly what happens in “Time Out of Joint.” Ragle Gumm discovers a piece of paper with the words “SOFT DRINK STAND” and this discovery unlocks his madness, turning him sane. Whether through experience or age, it seems like Dick has given up on this optimism in “A Maze of Death.” His characters are in the course of submitting to their fate. “Nobody sees reality as it actually is,” Frazer said. “As Kant proved. Space an time are modes of perception, for example.” Another character mentions that Specktowsky speaks about people as “prisoners of our own preconceptions and expectations...without ever seeing reality as it actually is.”

Despite the fatalism in this book, it’s not a downer. PKD includes many of his own views on death and life. The note from the author mentions “In the novel, Maggie Walsh’s experiences after death are based on an LSD experience of my own. In exact detail. The approach in this novel is highly subjective: by that I mean that at any given time, reality is seen -- not directly -- but indirectly, i.e., through the mind of one of the characters.” He also has references to other works that were perhaps influences of his. Near the beginning one of the characters is watching a movie of “Lord of the Rings” and later another character mentions John Dos Passos’ “USA” trilogy.

And, this is a stretch, but the titles of the chapters remind me of one of Thornton Burgess’ “Mother West Wind” books.

For example, here are two chapter titles from “The Adventures of Unc' Billy Possum":
  • "SAMMY JAY LEARNS PETER RABBIT'S SECRET"
  • "MR. TOAD AND PRICKLY PORKY PUT THEIR HEADS TOGETHER"
    And these from "Maze of Death"
    • "IN WHICH BEN TALLCHIEF WINS A PET RABBIT IN A RAFFLE" 
    • "A GROUP OF FRIENDS GATHER TOGETHER, AND SUE SMART RECOVERS HER FACULTIES"

    Perhaps this is Dick’s way of saying, yes, we are all in a maze of death, but it doesn’t have to be all serious, let’s have some whimsical fun along the way.

    From the 1983 DAW printing:
    Fourteen people came to Delmak-O in separate one-way space carriers. Their hope -- to make new beginnings away from the world where God had made Himself manifest.
    Their communication satellite suddenly destroyed, they found themselves each alone on an alien and hostile planet.
    Death and mystery and terror became their lot -- until they learned the true meaning of the Walker-on-Earth, the Form Destroyer, and the Intercessor...